ST. LOUIS — The decades-long argument over integrating schools in Little Rock, Ark., heads Monday to a federal appeals court that will decide whether the state can cut off millions of dollars in funding for desegregation programs.
More than 50 years after federal troops escorted black children into all-white Little Rock Central High School, the state pays about $70 million a year under a settlement designed to help three districts racially balance their schools.
State lawmakers want the payments to end, saying that they are wasteful. The Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts say they still need the money to fund programs such as magnet schools and voluntary busing.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis will review U.S. District Judge Brian Miller's May 19 order ending most of the payments. Miller accused the districts of delaying desegregation to continue getting state money.
The schools that serve about 50,000 students have come a long way since the governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School in 1957. But thousands of white and black children still are bused to different neighborhoods every day under one of the nation's largest remaining court-ordered desegregation systems.
The payments began after a 1989 settlement between the state and the school districts that created successful magnet schools in Little Rock and busing that allowed parents to voluntarily send children to schools outside their neighborhoods.
District officials warn that without state help, they might have to cut programs or teachers. Some parents have reacted to the uncertainty about future payments by looking to enroll their children in charter or private schools.
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.
All three districts are asking the appeals court to continue the state funding, and North Little Rock and Pulaski County also are asking to be released from court supervision.
Those two districts argue they have proven their ability to operate desegregation programs without court oversight.
The Little Rock district was removed from court supervision in 2007. That district has stopped placing students in neighborhood schools based on race but still requires magnet schools to have near-equal numbers of white and black students.