- Associated Press - Monday, January 13, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A federal judge said Monday that Arkansas can stop making payments in one of the nation’s most historic desegregation efforts but cautioned that work remains to ensure Little Rock-area students receive a proper education.

The state has made more than $1 billion in payments to three Little Rock-area school districts since 1989 to aid desegregation efforts. Under the deal approved by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall on Monday, those payments will end in four years, even though one of the districts still hasn’t been declared desegregated.

“I think this is a day we can write in the book and draw a circle around and remember that we did something important,” Marshall said. He said his objective was to ensure the agreement among lawyers for the state, the districts and black schoolchildren was fair, reasonable and adequate.

“There comes a time … where things should stop and things should go in the book,” Marshall said. “This is a fair and appropriate place to have a stop.”

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. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.

The case settled Monday stemmed from a 1982 lawsuit 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 a 1989 settlement, the state agreed to give the districts more money, but the funding never ended.

Federal judges have declared the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts essentially desegregated, or unitary, but have withheld that designation for the Pulaski County Special School District, which surrounds the city districts. The districts have a combined 49,000 students.

A main shortcoming in the county is its outdated facilities; the district will remain subject to the court.

State payments to the other districts have remained in place to fund magnet schools and programs in which students could transfer from districts where they were in the majority to where they’d be in the minority.

The payments, which total nearly $70 million a year, will continue for four years. Funds distributed in the final year must be dedicated to improving facilities.

Parent Markell Foreman Sr., whose son Markell Foreman Jr. is a junior studying chemical engineering in the Little Rock district’s magnet school program, said he’s not concerned about the districts losing funds, provided they make up for it in ways that don’t hurt education. For example, the districts have said their transportation costs will be reduced because they won’t have to bus transfer students.

“If they’re going to save $3 million, they could probably spend $2 million of that on the kids,” Foreman said Monday night after the judge announced his decision.

The physician assistant graduated from Central High in the 1990s and said his son has opportunities through the magnet school program that he didn’t have.

“It’s a lot more advanced as far as education is concerned,” Foreman said.

Despite any changes in the school systems over the years, some testimony Monday gave the judge pause - allegations of an achievement gap between black and white students and that the state isn’t monitoring to make sure schools achieve racial balance - but said he was satisfied the districts had plans for when the money was gone.

Story Continues →