LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – An agreement awaiting a federal judge’s final approval could soon end one of the nation’s most historic desegregation efforts following decades of court battles and $1 billion of special aid to Little Rock-area schools.
Lawyers and patrons this week will pick apart details of a proposed settlement among three school districts, state lawyers and others involved in the case to determine if it is fair. Unless U.S. District Judge Price Marshall finds fault with the deal, for the first time in more than a quarter century the state will no longer be required to make extra payments to help fund racial integration of schools.
In November, Marshall gave tentative approval to a plan that would end the state’s payments within four years. However, he will hear formal arguments Monday and Tuesday on whether to officially end the dispute that has roots in the Central High School desegregation fight 56 years ago.
“I grew up in Arkansas; I remember the 1957 crisis,” said Jerry Guess, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District. “I believe all of this is entwined and I believe this is an important moment in education in Arkansas.”
Little Rock Nine
Little Rock was the scene of the nation’s first major desegregation battle. President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High, the city system’s flagship school, amid angry protests by white parents and students. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.
The Little Rock School District sued the state and the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock districts in 1982, saying their policies had created a racial imbalance among schools countywide. Under terms of a 1989 settlement, the state of Arkansas agreed to give the districts extra money to boost desegregation efforts, including adding magnet schools and allowing student transfers.
Under the proposed settlement, payments that total nearly $70 million a year now would end in four years. Funds in the final year must be used to improve facilities. Without the settlement, the districts risk having payments stopped immediately, which almost happened two years ago.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller attempted to cut off the funding, saying the districts had become accustomed to the money and benefited more if they didn’t fully comply with the settlement.