Law & Courts

Desegregation Payments to End for Little Rock Schools

By Evie Blad — January 22, 2014 4 min read
An Arkansas National Guardsman prevents Elizabeth Eckford, right, from entering Little Rock Central High in 1957. Efforts to prevent integration in Little Rock made the city a national symbol of school segregation.

A federal judge approved a settlement between Arkansas and three Little Rock-area school districts that sets an end date for decades of state desegregation aid that has totaled roughly $1 billion.

Some praised the agreement as the end of a long chapter in the history of a city whose struggles with school segregation date back to the tumultuous 1957 integration of Central High School by nine black students. That event, following on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, was seen as pivotal in the national movement to desegregate schools.

“Let’s put this case in the books and move on with being partners in education rather than adversaries in court,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin B. McDaniel said after U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the latest judge to oversee the case, approved the agreement in a Jan. 13 bench ruling.

Others lamented persistent achievement gaps between black students and their higher-achieving white peers in the Little Rock area and said progress toward integration could erode without continued financial support and court oversight.

“The situation is pretty much the same as it was many years ago when we began,” John W. Walker, an attorney who represents an intervening group of black students in the case, told reporters after the hearing.

The agreement replaces a 1989 settlement under which the state collectively paid the Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County Special districts about $70 million annually to support programs designed to rebalance the racial composition among the three school systems, including interdistrict magnet schools and transportation for students from areas where they are the majority racial group to schools where they are in the minority.

That settlement followed a 1982 lawsuit by the Little Rock school district, which alleged that the state fostered policies that led to concentrations of black student enrollment in the city’s public schools.

Under the newly approved agreement, the state will continue providing the desegregation aid for four years, with the fourth year’s funding earmarked for facilities projects in the school systems.

The Pulaski County Special School District—the only one of the three that hasn’t been deemed fully unitary, or in compliance with its court-approved desegregation plan—will work with the black student intervenor group to meet its remaining desegregation goals, which include improving the poor conditions of facilities in parts of the district that enroll more black students and evening out disparate discipline rates, Superintendent Jerry D. Guess said.

‘Served Its Purpose’

Mr. Guess, a longtime Arkansas educator, previously led the state’s Camden district as it achieved unitary status.

“I believe that this case has served a very important role in Arkansas education,” Mr. Guess said of the Little Rock case. “It has kept the issue of racial equity before leaders, not only in Pulaski County, but across the state. As Judge Marshall said, it has served its purpose, and it’s time to move on.”

The districts will adjust to the funding loss as they also ease out of the programs created by the 1989 plan, said Mr. Guess.

The new agreement allows for the city of Jacksonville, which is a part of the county system, to form its own district. The town’s leaders have long argued that independence will allow the community to raise property taxes to improve its schools and facilities.

Under the agreement, the Little Rock-area districts will also phase out majority-to-minority transportation plans, and the magnet schools will stop accepting new applicants from Pulaski County and North Little Rock. Little Rock leaders have said they will maintain the magnet schools as special-program schools.

Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the new agreement didn’t signal that the central Arkansas schools are now desegregated.

“They’ve stopped trying, that’s what they’ve done,” he said.

Mr. Orfield said a changing tone in federal courts has made it more difficult for districts around the country to complete and maintain desegregation efforts. He cited as a leading example the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, which limited the way districts that are not under active desegregation orders can use race as a factor when assigning students to schools.

Without the active 1989 agreement, Little Rock will be less able to balance race in its schools, just as it begins to lose state funding for those efforts, Mr. Orfield said.

The district also agreed to abandon its court challenge to the state’s unconditional approval of independent, open-enrollment charter schools in the area. Little Rock had argued that the charters stripped affluent, white students from its rolls and violated the 1989 agreement.

Political momentum to end the state desegregation aid has snowballed since 2011, when a judge abruptly ended most of the payments, an order that was quickly reversed by a federal appeals court.

The state was set to argue in court that it should be released from the 1989 agreement. Rather than gamble on the outcome, the parties agreed to a new settlement.

“After all of the oversight that’s been here, I don’t think the districts want to regress,” said Mr. Guess. “All of us in public education are very aware of our responsibility to be fair and equitable to students.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as Funds to End for Little Rock Desegregation

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