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Desegregation aid could end for Arkansas schools

Settlement plan would phase out special payments

“Factually, nothing has changed since the last hearing,” said John Walker, a state representative.

AP/File

“Factually, nothing has changed since the last hearing,” said John Walker, a state representative.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An agreement awaiting a federal judge’s final approval could soon end one of the nation’s most historic desegregation efforts after 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.

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Unless US District Judge Price Marshall finds fault with the deal, for the first time in more than a quarter century the state no longer will 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, the 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 was the scene of the nation’s first major desegregation battle when President Dwight D. 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 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.

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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.

US District Judge Brian Miller, who has since recused himself from the case, 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.

‘‘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 in 2011. The US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit overturned him, saying no one had asked for the payments to end.

Taking that as a cue, the state petitioned to end the payments.

Marshall cannot modify the terms of the agreement; his role is only to approve or not approve it. If the agreement reached among the parties falls apart, a trial on the state’s request is set for March.

John Walker, a state representative and noted civil rights attorney who also represents black schoolchildren as intervenors, said he sees no reason the judge would disapprove.

‘‘Factually, nothing has changed since the last hearing,’’ Walker said.

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