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Public colleges created during segregation to provide blacks an education denied to them by white institutions are at the center of a budget battle brewing in Georgia.

Facing a $2 billion shortfall, a Republican state senator has proposed merging two of the historically black schools with nearby predominantly white colleges to save money and, in the process he says, erase a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation.

“I think we should close this ugly chapter in Georgia’s history,” Seth Harp, chairman of the state Senate’s Higher Education Committee, said Tuesday.

But Harp has stirred a torrent of opposition. Critics of the plan say students who might otherwise 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.

The schools also represent a critical piece of the civil rights struggle.

“We can’t afford to run away from our history,” said Leonard Haynes, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges.

The schools were largely founded before 1964, mostly in the segregated South to teach African-American students. But they are open to people of all races and experts say the number of white students at the campuses has been on the rise.

Harp’s proposal would merge the historically black 3,400-student Savannah State University with Armstrong Atlantic State University, a majority white school. Also, Albany State University, which has about 4,100 enrolled, would combine with nearby Darton College, which also has a predominantly white student body. The new campuses would keep the names of the older and more established black colleges.

But Harp’s plan was preliminary with few details about how the mergers would work.

Any combining of public universities need Georgia Board of Regents’ approval. A Regents spokesman said the board has no plans to consider the idea and suggested it runs contrary to the goal of increasing the number of Georgians with college degrees.

“If anything, we need to be broadening access to higher education,” Regents spokesman John Millsaps said.

But Harp said deep budget cuts rippling across the state may leave the universities with little choice when trying to save some $250 million.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Tuesday declined to comment specifically on his fellow Republican’s plan but said the grim economic picture gripping the nation and state means public universities must look to spend efficiently.

“A lot of tradition has gone on in our traditionally black universities and colleges,” Perdue said. “I think we need to respect that, and I think there are ways we can wring out efficiency in there that may not entail colleges losing their identities. So we’ll continue to look.”

But Harp, who is white, found an ally in Cynthia Tucker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tucker, who is black, wrote in a recent column that taxpayer-funded colleges “should be diverse, educating men and women of all colors and creeds.”

“There is no longer good reason for public colleges that are all-white or all-black,” Tucker wrote.

There are 105 public and private historically black colleges in the U.S., most in the South where Jim-Crow-era segregation laws were strictest – preventing some African-Americans from obtaining education.

While some private black colleges have folded over the years, no state has dismantled a public one, Haynes said.

Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United  Negro College Fund, questioned why Georgia’s black colleges must bear the burden of the state’s budget shortfall.

“It seems like a politically charged and politically motivated move rather than a fiscally responsible one,” Lomax, former commission chairman of Georgia’s most populous county, said. “I am deeply concerned …. This is a proposal by a politician to address a budget shortfall without engaging academic professionals and planners.”

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