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Little Rock Drops 'Controlled Choice' Desegregation Plan

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After operating for little more than a year under a controversial desegregation plan, the Little Rock school board has unveiled yet another student-assignment plan that it hopes to implement next fall.

The move represents a rejection by the board of the parental choice allowed under the current desegregation plan, which has been widely criticized as too costly and confusing.

The new plan, which would be phased in over a five-year period if approved by the federal courts, would allow most students to attend neighborhood schools.

The plan would also create eight "incentive schools" in predominantly black neighborhoods that would receive twice the average resources available to other schools in the district. While these schools would have geographic attendance zones, they would also be open to students from throughout the district.

The incentive schools would require students to attend for nearly two more hours each day than normal schools, and might also require Saturday classes, according to John W. Walker, a lawyer for black parents in the case and one of the architects of the new plan.

Seventh Plan

If adopted, the new proposal would be the seventh student-assignment plan implemented since federal troops helped ensure the safety of the first black students to enroll in Little Rock High School in 1957.

The case has taken many twists and turns since then, but none so abrupt as the board's announcement this month that it was seeking to scrap the one-year-old plan and replace it with what is being billed in the local press as a return to neigh8borhood schools.

The reversal has clearly ruffled the feathers of some district staff members, who have striven to make the current plan a success but declined to comment on the record.

The proposal was developed cooperatively by lawyers for the board and black intervenors in the case, with the support of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

While the plan would--for the first time in 17 years--prevent students from being involuntarily bused, it does not represent a return to the days of segregated schooling, Mr. Walker said.

The plan will initially use voluntary measures in an attempt to meet racial-balance goals, he said, but it will also include provisions for mandatory busing if that eventually proves necessary.

The district currently operatesunder a modified "controlled choice" plan, which allows parents a choice of any school in the district but forces mandatory reassignments if projected enrollments at each school are not racially balanced.

Black parents are critical of the controlled-choice plan, Mr. Walker said, because it "still places greater burdens on black children."

The plan has also "clearly segregated kids by socio-economic status," he said, and has "given the district too much discretion to deny choices."

Strike in Neighboring District

Meanwhile, 1,300 teachers in the Pulaski County Special School District, which virtually surrounds Little Rock, completed their first week on strike last Friday.

The strike, which has idled almost 22,000 students, resulted after the teachers rejected an offer of a 3.29 percent step increase.

The teachers are requesting an additional 3 percent across-the-board increase, according to a district official.

Voters in the Pulaski County district have rejected each of the millage increases proposed by the board in the past 11 years, most recently in September, according to Billy Bowles, assistant superintendent for desegregation.

The Pulaski County district lost 37 percent of its tax base when a federal court required in 1987 that 14 of its schools be transferred to the Little Rock district, he added.

The Pulaski County Special School District is also seeking court approval of a new student-assignment plan, after a federal appeals court in February rejected the district's previous proposal.

The new plan relies on the creation of educational enhancements to lure a racially balanced population to schools that currently violate the court's guidelines, Mr. Bowles said.

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