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Judge Approves End to Little Rock Desegregation Settlement

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A federal judge approved an end Monday to a decades-long desegregation settlement between Arkansas and three Little Rock area school districts.

The new agreement includes plans for the eventual end of about $70 million in annual desegregation aid the state pays to the Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pulaski County Special school districts.

Parties in the case, including attorneys representing black students, tentatively reached the agreement in November. U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr., the latest judge to oversee the case, approved the agreement in a bench ruling following a daylong hearing.  Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel tweeted:

The districts reached the original settlement in 1989 to resolve a 1982 lawsuit by the Little Rock district, which claimed that the state had allowed for a series of wide-ranging policies that promoted racial imbalances between the three school systems. Little Rock is best known as the site of the landmark 1957 integration of Central High School. Because of that history and because of some of the unusual elements of the desegregation case, it has been one of the longest-running and most closely watched desegration efforts in the country.

State funding provided under the 1989 agreement helped pay for majority-to-minority student transfers and intradistrict magnet schools, which were created under the agreement in an effort to rebalance the districts' enrollments. Under the deal approved Monday, the state will provide three more years of desegregation aid to the three districts, with Little Rock receiving about $37.3 million a year, the largest share. In the fourth year, the state will provide payments in the same amounts, which will be earmarked for facilities projects in the three school systems.

The court has previously found the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts to be unitary, or in compliance with their multipronged desegregation plans. The Pulaski County Special school district, which includes land within the Little Rock city limits, has been labeled unitary in some areas, but it is still working to address the rest of its plan to the court's satisfaction. Under the agreement approved Monday, the county district will address its remaining desegregation issues in a separately negotiated plan.

In addition to setting an end date for state funding, the new agreement will gradually end new enrollments at and transportation to the magnet schools created under the 1989 settlement, allow for the creation of a new school district in the northern portion of the county, and mandate the end to all claims the districts have against the state in the long-running court battle.

Little Rock and lawyers representing the class of black students also agreed to abandon a court challenge to the state's unconditional approval of independently run, open-enrollment charter schools within the county.  Those charter schools, which are not required to provide transportation to students, upset decades of desegregation efforts by attracting students from within Little Rock's enrollment boundaries, the district argued. U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. previously ruled against the district's claims that the creation of charter schools violated the 1989 settlement. An appeal of that decision is pending before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Marshall made his ruling from the bench following a daylong fairness hearing set to review objections to the agreement, which he tentatively approved in a previous hearing. Opponents to the plan included parents of magnet school students and a group from the small town of Sherwood, which wants to form its own school system independent of the county district, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Reaching a planned end to the desegregation aid has been a hot topic of discussion in Arkansas for years and a key priority of McDaniel's. Gov. Mike Beebe even factored in the end of the payments, which have added up to about $1 billion, as a condition of a part his plan to phase out the state's grocery tax.

Judge Brian Miller, who has since recused himself from the case, previously put an immediate halt to most of the desegregation aid in 2011, a decision later overturned by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because no party in the case had asked Miller to issue such an order. In a lengthy order issued at the time, Miller argued that the aid provided a perverse incentive for the districts that caused them to be lax in their improvement efforts as a means of maintaining the state funds.

"It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot-and-stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job," Miller wrote.

Photo: Seven black students walk onto the campus of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., with a National Guard officer as an escort as other troops watch on Oct. 15, 1957. After decades of court battles and $1 billion of government aid, one the nation's most historic school desegregation efforts may finally be nearing an end.  --Fred Kaufman/AP-File

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