Equity & Diversity

Arkansas Reaches Possible End of Desegregation Settlement, Payments

By Evie Blad — November 15, 2013 4 min read
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Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and representatives of three Little Rock-area school districts that have been involved in decades of desegregation litigation have signed off on a tentative agreement that would gradually end annual state desegregation-aid payments of about $70 million to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts. That aid helps pay for programs outlined in a 1989 legal settlement, including transporting students from majority-to-minority schools and magnet schools.

A panel of state lawmakers signed off on the agreement Friday morning, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. The Little Rock School Board approved the plan Thursday night on the condition that the Joshua Intervenors, the name for a group that represents black students in the case, also agree to the plan, the paper reported. That group, led by civil rights attorney and state Rep. John Walker, a Democrat, has resisted approving the agreement.

McDaniel told lawmakers he believes he could seek court approval of the proposal without Walker’s consent. That means he must next convince Little Rock to move forward without Walker’s blessing.

The North Little Rock School Board also approved the plan in a special meeting Thursday, and the Pulaski County Special district has no board because it is under state control triggered by financial management problems.

In addition to setting an end date for state funding, the agreement would gradually end new enrollments at and transportation to magnet schools created under the 1989 settlement, allow for the creation of a new school district in the northern portion of the county, and mandate the end to all claims the districts have against the state in the long-running court battle.

Notably, Little Rock and the Joshua intervenors would abandon a court challenge to the state’s unconditional approval of independently run, open-enrollment charter schools within the county. Those charter schools, which are not required to provide transportation to students, upset decades of desegregation efforts by attracting students from within Little Rock’s enrollment boundaries, the district argued. U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. previously ruled against the district’s claims that the creation of charter schools violated the 1989 settlement. An appeal of that decision is pending before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

The state is set to make the case that it has met its obligations under the 1989 settlement agreement at a December federal court hearing. If Judge Marshall sides with the state in that argument, the desegregation aid could stop immediately. Parties in the case, not wanting to gamble on the outcome, have presented several proposals and counter-proposals to ease out of the original settlement in anticipation of that hearing. The most recent outline is the first to have agreement from both state and district attorneys.

The proposed agreement calls for three more years of state desegregation aid to the three districts, with Little Rock receiving about $37.3 million, the largest share. In the fourth year, the state would provide payments in the same amounts, this time earmarked for facilities projects in the three school systems.

The 1989 settlement followed a lawsuit by the Little Rock district in 1982 which argued that the state had allowed for a series of wide-ranging policies that promoted racial imbalances between the three school systems. The court has since found the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts to be unitary, or in compliance with their multipronged desegregation plans. The Pulaski County Special school district, which includes land within the Little Rock city limits, has been labeled unitary in some areas, but it is still working to address the rest of its plan to the court’s satisfaction. The proposal approved Friday calls for a separate agreement that will address that district’s unitary status.

Social media responses to the agreement from the polarized camps who’ve followed the case have been mixed. Some advocates of unrestricted school choice in the state argue that the agreement puts too many limitations on transfers between the districts. Others seem to be glad to see a potential end to the payments, even if they see it as imperfect. But some state lawmakers in a Thursday hearing lamented the persistence of poor educational conditions for many black students in parts of Little Rock and the rest of the state.

Walker, the civil rights attorney, may be resisting the agreement in part because he thinks the removal of transportation options may leave many poor, black students in struggling neighborhood schools. Some critics of the state-approved charter schools have also argued that, because those schools are not obligated to provide transportation, only more affluent students will be able to attend them, promoting greater racial and economic divisions in the school systems.

Little Rock is, of course, is the site of a landmark struggle between the state and federal governments in the 1957 integration of Central High School by nine black students. The current court case has been one of the longest running and most closely watched desegration battles in the country.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.