Years ago, there was a conservative state senator from Swifton named Bob Harvey. He was a man of principle, and every legislative session when the appropriation for Arkansas Children’s Hospital came up, he’d speak against it on principle. Children’s Hospital is a fine institution, he’d say, but it’s a private institution, not controlled by state government, and therefore it shouldn’t receive state money. If we do this for one private institution, he’d ask, where do we stop? Then he’d sit down and the Senate would overwhelmingly approve the ACH appropriation.
ACH is still a private, nonprofit institution and the legislature still gives money to it. (But it’s a private institution with an unusually close relationship with the state. ACH houses the pediatrics department of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and most of the doctors at ACH are paid by UAMS.) Other private agencies also have received state appropriations on occasion. If there were any legal challenges to these, they were overcome.
This year, some of the media have raised questions about state appropriations to private, church-related colleges, invoking the issue of separation of church and state. The colleges in question are all predominantly black, and the appropriations were arranged by black legislators. The money came from the controversial General Improvement Fund, which the legislators divvy up for local projects — volunteer fire departments, libraries, parks. Critics of the GIF say these local projects should be locally funded, and the GIF used to meet the needs of state government, such as improving the public schools.
Sen. Tracy Steele of North Little Rock got a $30,000 appropriation for Philander Smith College in Little Rock, a United Methodist school, and $10,000 for Shorter College in North Little Rock, affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal church. Sen. Irma Hunter Brown of Little Rock got $70,000 for Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. Rep. Dwayne Dobbins of North Little Rock got another $10,000 for Shorter, and Rep. Otis Davis of Earle another $3,000 for Arkansas Baptist.
Steele expresses surprise at media criticism of these appropriations, since previous appropriations went unnoted. He said that in the 2003 session, he got money for Shorter and Philander Smith and, with assistance from Brown and Rep. Linda Pondexter Chesterfield, for Arkansas Baptist too. In 1999, when he was a member of the House of Representatives, he got money for Shorter.
Critics suggest that if legislators gave money to predominantly white, church-related colleges — Harding University (Church of Christ) in Searcy, say, or Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia — there would be cries of protest. That may or may not be true, but even if it is, Steele says there’s a key difference between black church schools and white church schools.
In 1980, the federal government began a program to assist historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including those that are private and church-related. The purpose of the program is “to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” In the 2005 fiscal year, the federal government will provide $238.6 million for strengthening HBCUs, Steele said. Philander Smith, Shorter and Arkansas Baptist are all recognized as HBCUs. So is the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the state’s only public university that is predominantly black.
Steele notes that both the federal and state governments provide assistance — scholarships, grants — to students who can use the money at any institution they want, including the church-related ones. Most of the students at HBCUs get government assistance, he said.
The same point is made by Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College. Philander Smith has about 890 students, he said, and over 90 percent of them receive federal assistance, mostly Pell grants. Most HBCUs have a similarly high percentage of students receiving assistance, because most of their students come from poor families, he said.
Steele and Kimbrough say that institutions like Philander Smith came into existence — in 1877, in Philander’s case — because blacks weren’t allowed to attend state institutions. Blacks couldn’t attend the University of Arkansas until 1948, Kimbrough said, and they couldn’t attend Kimbrough’s undergraduate alma mater, the University of Georgia, until 1961. And that was by court order.
While it’s true that private institutions are receiving public assistance, it’s also true that public institutions are seeking and receiving far more money from private donors than ever before, Kimbrough said.
“The state schools are going after the same pool of private dollars that the small private colleges, black and white, use,” he said. “It’s almost like double-dipping for the public schools.”
Besides the media, nobody seems much concerned about public money going to church-related colleges, nor to believe that a legal challenge to the appropriations would prevail. Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, president pro tem of the Senate and chairman of the Education Committee, said he believes that General Improvement Fund money should go for state programs and institutions, and that GIF procedures should be changed.
“Some members seemed to come to this session with the main thing on their minds being how much they could get for GIF projects,” Argue said. “But the old system [when the governor had complete control of the GIF] wasn’t good, either. The governor punished or rewarded legislators depending on their degree of support for his programs.” (The present system, giving legislators control over some of the general improvement money, was adopted in 1997.)
That said, Argue also said that he didn’t know of any questions being raised about the legality of state money going to private, church-related colleges.
“We give money for scholarships to kids who attend private, church-related colleges. The precedent is already there.”
Lu Hardin, president of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, said, “I have no problem with a senator or representative giving general improvement money to any educational group. We in K through 12 and higher education, public and private, have the same mission — to improve education in Arkansas and increase the number of graduates.”
Hardin said he was grateful to Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway for giving the full $750,000 of Gilbert’s general improvement money to UCA. “It will help us a great deal.”
Rita Sklar, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU, had said nothing publicly about state aid to church colleges, and apparently hadn’t given much thought to it either, until a reporter called last week. After doing some research, she said that legally, colleges are different from elementary and secondary schools in regard to receiving public money for church-related institutions. She quoted a 1971 case in which the federal courts held that federal assistance to a church-related college was permissible if the money was used for “general, secular purposes.” Improving technology, which is what Kimbrough said Philander Smith would use its state money for, would seem to fit that description.