- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas cannot cut off millions of dollars in funding for desegregation programs in Little Rock-area school districts until a challenge to the payments gets a separate federal court hearing, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals comes months after U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ordered an end to most of the payments, calling them counterproductive. He accused three school districts of delaying desegregation to continue getting state money and agreed with state lawmakers who argue the payments are wasteful.

The appeals court, which heard the case in September after the districts challenged the order, ruled Judge Miller’s conclusion may have merit but that he did not make “specific findings of fact” to support his decision.

Rather, Judge Miller “stated in general terms that a carrot and stick approach would no longer work with ‘these districts’ because the districts ‘are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job,’” the appeals court wrote.

The court also said a formal hearing on the evidence must be held and notice issued before a court can end desegregation obligations.

Arkansas is required by a 1989 settlement to fund magnet schools, transfers between districts and other programs to support desegregation and keep a racial balance in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts. The state has been spending about $38 million a year to comply with the settlement, according to Wednesday’s ruling.

Lawmakers long have wanted to end the payments, but the districts say they’re still necessary.

Battles over school desegregation in Little Rock date back to 1957, when nine black children needed the protection of federal troops to integrate Central High School. Little Rock sued the state and its two neighboring districts in 1982. Two years later, a judge agreed that the districts hadn’t done enough to help the city schools desegregate.

In May, when Judge Miller ordered an end to most of the state payments, he wrote that the change was necessary to avoid “an absurd outcome in which the districts are rewarded with extra money from the state if they fail to comply with their desegregation plans and they face having their funds cut by the state if they act in good faith and comply.”