ATLANTA (AP) _ An influential Georgia lawmaker said Wednesday that the state's funding of historically Black public colleges is illegal.
Seth Harp, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, introduced a resolution Wednesday urging the state Board of Regents to save money by merging Black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby schools that are predominantly white.
The Regents would have to approve any merger and the university system chancellor has signaled opposition to the idea.
But state lawmakers control the purse strings and Harp said Wednesday that they should use "the power of the budget to urge the Regents to do the right thing."
Harp, a Midland Republican, said the schools are a vestige of the Jim Crow era and "perpetuate segregation in our state."
"It is time we close this chapter in Georgia," Harp said.
Harp said the proposal is also driven by the state's floundering finances. The state is struggling to close a $2 billion budget shortfall and consolidating the schools would conserve badly-needed cash.
But Harp's cost-saving plan has stirred a torrent of opposition from critics who say the schools represent a vital piece of the civil rights struggle.
"This is a matter of pride in the African-American community," state Sen. Emanuel Jones, chairman of Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said.
"He is not just talking about merging institutions he's talking about a way of life with roots that go back to slavery. That's the nerve that he's touching." Supporters of the colleges say students who otherwise might not attend college are being educated at the schools. Black students perform better in the Black-college setting, experts say, and the dropout rate among African-Americans is lower than at majority white institutions.
Harp is proposing merging the historically Black 3,400-student Savannah State University with nearby Armstrong Atlantic State University, a majority white school that has 6,800 students.
Also, historically Black Albany State University, which has about 4,100 enrolled, would combine with nearby Darton College, which has a predominantly white student body with about 4,700 students enrolled.
The new campuses would keep the names of the older and more established Black colleges.
Harp's plan would leave the state with just one public historically Black college, Fort Valley State University near Macon. That school is left out of the proposal because it is not close to majority-white school.
Speaking on the floor of the state Senate on Wednesday, Harp warned that Georgia funding for schools violates the law.
He cited a desegregation case in Tennessee where a Black teacher, Rita Geier, sued over the University of Tennessee's plans to develop a Nashville campus. She feared UT-Nashville would become a predominantly white school and that historically Black Tennessee State would suffer. In a 1984 settlement, the state agreed to provide millions of dollars to diversify public colleges and universities.
Russ Willard, a spokesman for state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, said the office has not been asked for a legal opinion on funding for the state's historically Black colleges.
But he noted that neither traditionally Black nor traditionally white public colleges in Georgia currently discriminate in their admissions process, which likely would resolve any constitutional concerns over their funding.
Earlier this month, University System of Georgia Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. said that a merger might save money, but would be detrimental to students.
"We understand the need to be as efficient as possible in the current budget climate," he said. "We are combining back-office functions and capturing those administrative efficiencies. I believe this is far preferable to blurring the mission of distinct institutions."