On January 13, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas approved a settlement agreement that may ultimately conclude Little Rock School Dist. et al. v. Pulaski County School Dist., 4:82-cv-866, one of the longest running desegregation cases in the country. The settlement requires the State of Arkansas to allocate approximately $280 million to three Little Rock-area school districts over the next four years. If these payments are timely made, then the 1989 consent judgment authorizing court oversight of state appropriations and a host of student transfer agreements will be terminated.
The settlement represents the end of an era in the very schools where the national effort to end de jure desegregation began. In 1954, the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education held that de jure segregation of public schools was illegal. Three years later, Little Rock's Central High School was forcibly desegregated. Since that time, the Little Rock School District (LRSD) has labored to end de facto segregation and unequal funding amongst districts.
In 1982, LRSD sued North Little Rock School District (NLRSD), Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD), and the State of Arkansas. LRSD alleged that continued segregationist policies were harming the district. Following a trial on the merits, the district court held, among other findings, that students from the predominantly black LRSD were denied access to the PCSSD's programs for gifted students. The court further held that boundary lines between districts were manipulated to maintain the LRSD's predominantly black enrollment, which limited opportunities for its students. Little Rock School Dist. v. Pulaski County, 584 F.Supp. 328 (E.D. Ark. 1984). The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's factual findings. However, the appellate court declined to consolidate all three districts. Instead, the Eighth Circuit ordered boundary adjustments, inter-district transfers and the implementation of magnet schools. See 778 F. 2d 404 (8th Cir. 1985).
Under comprehensive consent judgments entered in 1988 and 1989, NLRSD and PCSSD implemented detailed plans to remedy segregation within their districts, while the State provided substantial funding for an inter-district remedy that included the creation of magnet schools and student transfers. See 921 F. 2d 1371 (8th Cir. 1990). Under these consent decrees, school districts were provided a strong financial incentive to recruit and encourage so-called majority-to-minority voluntary transfers. Under a host of subsequent agreements, each district made substantial progress toward ending segregation, eventually achieving court-recognized unitary status. See, e.g., 561 F.3d 746 (8th Cir. 2009).
In 2012, the State moved for relief from the 1989 consent decrees. The Stated reported disbursements of more than $1 billion to integrate the Pulaski County school districts and argued that no further constitutional violations exist. The District Court denied a motion to dismiss filed by the LRSD and set the matter for an evidentiary hearing. The parties ultimately negotiated a settlement in which the State will provide an additional $70 million in funding each year for the next four years to support existing integration programs. Upon approval by the elected branches of state government, and after more than two decades of remedial action, the State will then be released from its court-imposed obligations and any further liability for its role in a system of state-endorsed segregation in Little Rock.