Free at last 

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week all but ended the Little Rock school desegregation lawsuit by upholding a lower court's finding that the district had achieved unitary status. The district is officially desegregated. Last-ditch appeals are possible, but likely fruitless. In the words of Judge Bill Wilson, the district can run itself “as it sees fit,” without court oversight.

It's certainly preferable not to be in court. But I also believe we'll soon enough see that the ills of the court case have been overstated, generally by people who have other agendas — against the school district or civil rights lawyer John Walker or the bedrock notion of equal rights for people of all skin colors. School life will go on largely as before.

One need not look too hard to see that — over more than a half-century of court proceedings in Little Rock and elsewhere — federal judges provided equal treatment when school districts would not.

We owe universal education in the South to such lawsuits. We owe the end of legal segregation to such lawsuits. We owe equal access to education to such lawsuits. We owe tremendous advancements in the status of black educators to such lawsuits.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel waited barely minutes after the court ruling to announce that he'd move expeditiously to end continuing state subsidies to the three Pulaski County school districts. It's just such opportunism that helped produce the situation in which the state remains enmeshed.

The state owes money to the districts to continue easy movement of students across district lines to seek the best educations possible. It can't stop paying until North Little Rock and Pulaski County schools have been declared unitary, too. The money is a product of a federal court settlement in which the state admitted it had spent decades — through law, constitution and other official actions — to promote segregation. It agreed to pay money to right past wrongs. It has been the tendency of many in the state to think that the wrongs were overstated and that the payments have gone on long enough. Those who believe this generally are white. Many of them also have moved beyond the city limits of places segregated thanks to housing patterns encouraged by official action or they're financially able to seek private school insulation from the hard-case kids that populate problematic school districts.

The state's $60 million a year isn't a trifling sum, but it's small against the almost $3 billion the state spends on schools.  If the $60 million were all to be rolled into the school budget, it might produce another $100 per student statewide, after Pulaski's school kids got their equal share. Welcome, but not life-altering.

Meanwhile, back in Little Rock, we'll continue to educate a majority black school population disproportionately influenced by difficult family, education, income and health factors. Many state officials remain intent on making it harder. For example, some want to divert more state money to so-called charter schools. These are really publicly financed quasi-private schools that need not endure disruptive students. They may boot those who don't meet a school's rigorous standards, should they trouble to apply in the first place. A true public school doesn't have the luxury of accepting only kids and families pledged to best behavior.

Here's the bottom line: If the state thinks its responsibility for equal education was ended by last week's court ruling, history will repeat itself.




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