More than a half-century after federal troops escorted nine black students into an all-white school, efforts to desegregate Little Rock’s classrooms are at another turning point.
The state wants to end its long-running payments for desegregation programs, but three school districts that receive the money say they need it to continue key programs. And a federal judge has accused the schools of delaying desegregation so they can keep receiving an annual infusion of $70 million.
A federal appeals court will hear arguments Monday from both sides. The judges are expected to decide eventually whether Arkansas still has to make the payments and whether two of the districts should remain under court supervision.
The schools, which serve about 50,000 students, have come a long way since 1957, when the governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School. But thousands of white and black children still have to be bused to different neighborhoods every day under one of the nation’s largest remaining court-ordered desegregation systems.
Some Little Rock schools remain as segregated as the neighborhoods around them. And achieving racial balance is becoming more difficult as families leave the suburbs that supply white students to schools in majority-black city neighborhoods. Despite years of efforts, black students still score much lower on tests than white students.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller pointed to problems with student achievement and discipline, particularly in Pulaski County, a suburban district that takes in black students from Little Rock and North Little Rock and sends white children to both.
After weeks of testimony, Miller concluded that “few, if any, of the participants in this case have any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children.”
After decades of issuing court orders, judges across the country have shown in recent years that they want to get out of school desegregation, said Wendy Parker, a professor at Wake Forest University.
“I think courts have gotten exhausted with it,” she said. “I don’t think they’re stopping because they’ve been successful. I think they’re stopping because they feel it’s time to move onto other issues.”
In other cities with schools that were desegregated by court order, such as Kansas City, Mo., and Charlotte, N.C., the classrooms eventually went back to reflecting the segregated neighborhoods around them, Parker said.
“Everybody loves choice today,” Parker said. “But choice by definition allows people to self-segregate.”