Wisconsin couple sues over college grant program that is open to some minorities but not others

MADISON – A Madison couple sued the state Thursday over a college grant program for minorities that they argue violates the Wisconsin Constitution. 

The suit, brought with the assistance of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, contends the minority grant program operated by the state’s Higher Educational Aids Board violates the clause of the state constitution that says everyone is equal. The grants are available to some minorities but not other minorities. 

Those bringing the lawsuit want the grants to be given out based on financial need, not race. 

Among those bringing the lawsuit are Konkanok Rabiebna and Richard Freihoefer of Madison. Rabiebna is from Thailand and Freihoefer is white. Their biracial teenage son does not qualify for the grant program.

“Government programs must be available to everybody, not just certain racial groups,” Rabiebna said in a statement.

The Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant program is open to those who are Black, Native American or Hispanic or who came to the United States from Vietnam, Laos or Thailand after December 1975, soon after the Vietnam War ended. 

Those who came from other Asian countries, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan or anywhere else don’t qualify for it. 

“This is discrimination based on race, national origin, and alienage, which is forbidden by the Wisconsin Constitution,” attorney Daniel Lennington wrote in the lawsuit. 

The board that oversees the grants has asked Attorney General Josh Kaul to defend it and his office is reviewing the lawsuit, according to a spokeswoman for Kaul.

Darryl Morin, president of Forward Latino, said his group and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund are also looking into the lawsuit. They want to make sure the grant program continues to help those who are disadvantaged.

“We look at it as a program trying to fix the inequities that are inherent in Wisconsin’s education system and particularly the way that we fund education throughout the state,” Morin said.

Established in 1985, the program provides grants of $250 to $2,500 a year to minority students based on financial need. According to the lawsuit, 729 students received grants worth about $796,000 in the 2019-20 school year. 

The grants can be used at state technical colleges and private institutions in Wisconsin. 

Those bringing the lawsuit filed their case in Jefferson County. No one involved in the case lives there, but state law allows lawsuits against the state to be filed in any county. 

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.