Plan for Little Rock Would Shift Away From Busing

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A new chapter is opening in Little Rock's decades-old desegregation saga, following a federal judge's approval of a revised plan there authorizing less busing and more neighborhood schools in Arkansas' largest school system.

Judge Susan Webber Wright

The ruling this month by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright sets the stage for Little Rock to join the growing ranks of formerly segregated districts being freed from years of court supervision. Under the accord, judicial oversight would end in 2001 if the court finds then that the 25,000-student district has kept its end of the bargain.

Coming four decades after federal troops were deployed to help integrate the city's schools, the plan is being hailed by school leaders as a milestone in the system's protracted, race-centered struggles. "Really, I think, the healing process in this community has started," Superintendent Leslie V. Carnine said last week.

Others sounded a more cautious note. "This is a significant step," said Joel E. Anderson, the provost of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the chairman of a task force that studied the city schools. But "the future of the Little Rock school district still remains in doubt," he said.

The newly approved 24-page consent decree is the fruit of bargaining between the district and the lawyer representing local African-Americans. It replaces a far lengthier 1989 accord that school officials criticized as too prescriptive.

No Sudden Changes

The revised plan "does not require any sudden or drastic changes to the present student-assignment plan" and maintains the district's magnet school program.

But it authorizes administrators to stop assigning students to schools across town, except in the unlikely event that such busing is needed to prevent a school from becoming more than 80 percent white. It also explicitly relieves the district of having "to recruit students to obtain a particular racial balance in every LRSD school."

The plan allows greater use of neighborhood schools, provided the district strives "to create as many truly desegregated schools" as practical. More than two-thirds of district students are black. Four decades ago, the district was more than three-quarters white.

The 1989 decree ordered the district to close the achievement gap between black and white students, a goal toward which the district has since made scant progress.

The revised plan sets no such specific benchmarks. But it does commit the district to steps aimed at improving performance among black students, including more preschool classes, a greater focus on early math and reading skills, and replacement of junior highs with middle schools.

Mr. Carnine said the revised plan will provide the flexibility needed for "sincerely making sure that a quality education is provided."

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