Arkansas desegregation payments stop to Little Rock schools

A federal judge approved a settlement Monday that will allow the state of Arkansas to stop making payments to three Little Rock-area school districts to aid their desegregation efforts.

U.S. District Judge Price Marshall signed off on the pact after hearing several hours of testimony from opponents of the deal and lawyers for the signees: the state, the districts and black schoolchildren.

Since 1989, the state has given the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts more than $1 billion, total, above their regular state appropriations. The money — about $70 million this fiscal year — goes toward magnet schools and transporting students from districts where they'd be in the majority to those where they'd be in the minority.

The state has wanted to halt the payments for years, and Marshall had scheduled a March trial to hear Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's lawsuit seeking the arrangement's immediate end.

Under the new deal, the state will continue making payments through 2017, with final-year funding earmarked for facilities.

"The incentives are great for all of us," McDaniel told Marshall on Monday. "We know that if litigation results in a harsh outcome (for one party or another), the true victims are the students."

The original lawsuit was filed in 1982 — when the Little Rock district said policies among the state and the North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts left all schools countywide with a racial imbalance. Under the 1989 settlement, the state agreed to give the districts more money but the funding never ended.

The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts have been declared integrated; Pulaski County has been found short in several areas, including facilities.

Objections raised in court Monday included whether students currently in magnet school programs could continue in their current curricula (they can't) and whether students in majority-to-minority transfers can stay where they are until graduation (they can).

Residents in Sherwood, a Little Rock suburb, also want permission to establish their own district without having to wait until Pulaski County's district is declared integrated. A separate city, Jacksonville, is in line to set up its own district.

Beverly Williams, who represents a group of Sherwood-area school patrons, said the community has worked for years to carve out its own district.

"The finish line keeps moving," she told the court.

Marshall could not modify the terms of the agreement; he could only approve or reject it.

A federal judge in 2011 attempted to end the funding, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him, saying no party had asked to end the payments. Then, federal judge Brian Miller said the state had used a carrot-and-stick approach, but that the districts had learned how to "eat the carrot and sit down on the job" by not doing everything possible to integrate schools.

Little Rock was the scene of the nation's first major desegregation battle when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High School, the city system's flagship school.