Desegregation Payments to End in Little Rock Schools

By Chris Hoenig

More than 50 years after the Little Rock Nine started the desegregation process, three school districts in the Little Rock area will stop receiving state funds to aid in the efforts.

The Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special districts have been receiving payments since 1989 to transport students between districts, trying to prevent any one race from being an overwhelming majority within them. The money, totaling more than $1 billion dollars above their regular state education allocations in the past two-plus decades, has also been used to open magnet schools in the three districts.

The funding began after a 1982 lawsuit that accused the state, North Little Rock schools and the Pulaski County district of having policies that essentially resegregated schools throughout the county by race. A settlement was reached in 1989 that called for the state to pay to bus students from districts where they’d be in the majority to districts where they would not, and vice versa.

The state has been trying to end the payments for years. In 2011, federal judge Brian Miller tried to stop the funding, accusing the state of using a carrot-and-stick approach that the schools had taken advantage of by trying to “eat the carrot and sit down on the job,” and by not doing everything they could to desegregate the schools. But the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that none of the main parties in the settlement—the state, the districts or the schoolchildren—had asked to end the payments, overturning Miller’s order. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel later filed a formal lawsuit, which was scheduled to go to trial in March, to end the funding, which comes to about $70 million this fiscal year.

U.S. District Court Judge Price Marshall signed off on a plan, approved by all three major parties, which calls for funding to continue through 2017 and allows these transferred students to remain where they are through graduation. Magnet-school students cannot continue in their programs, however, and the plan also calls for the 2017 funding to be spent on facilities, one of several areas that is preventing the Pulaski County schools from being declared integrated. Desegregation efforts have already been declared successful in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

“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.”

Marshall, who could only approve or reject the pact, was unable to modify it to rule on a request by parents in the Little Rock suburb of Sherwood to create their own district rather than wait for Pulaski County schools to be declared integrated. “The finish line keeps moving,” Beverly Williams, who represents Sherwood-area families, told the court, noting they have worked for years to try to get their own district approved. The city of Jacksonville, also in the Pulaski County Special district, is currently in the process of setting up its own district.

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