LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- After decades of court battles and $1 billion of government aid, one the nation's most historic school desegregation efforts might finally be nearing an end.
A federal judge gave preliminary approval Friday to a settlement in a Little Rock desegregation lawsuit that would phase out special court-ordered payments after the 2017-18 school year.
The end would come 60 years after the eyes of the nation first were riveted on Little Rock, when President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 ordered federal troops to ensure safe passage for nine black students walking through angry crowds into the doors of the predominantly white Little Rock Central High School.
U.S. District Judge Price Marshall said Friday that the settlement appeared to be legal -- an important hurdle. He set a hearing for Jan. 13-14 to determine whether it's fair to the state, the school districts, the children and educators involved in the case.
"This is not the end," Marshall said. "But I hope this is the beginning of the end."
For at least some of those who were there for the beginning, Friday's court action rekindled decades of powerful emotions of distrust and frustration.
"Wow! That's interesting -- I wasn't aware they were at that stage," said Terrance Roberts, one of the original Little Rock Nine escorted into Central High in 1957. But Roberts wasn't rejoicing Friday. Rather, it's "business as usual," he said.
Roberts, who was a high school junior when he helped integrate Central High, later returned as a desegregation consultant for the Little Rock School District in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He said he was relieved of his duties before all of his proposals were implemented.
"Even though on the surface they gave the impression that they were willing to follow the dictates of the federal government to desegregate, there was not only a great reluctance, there was an unwillingness to really move in that direction," Roberts said in a telephone interview from St. Louis, where he was attending the screening of a documentary about the federal judge who ordered the desegregation of Central High.
The lawsuit moving toward a settlement is not the same one that spurred the school's integration. But it still has deep roots. It dates to 1982 and has resulted in more than $1 billion of state spending on desegregation efforts in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts.
Much of the extra state money that flowed to the districts -- a combined $70 million per year -- went to magnet schools, which focus on particular programs such as the arts and sciences. As a result, the Little Rock district has been able to attract students from the predominantly white suburbs into the now predominantly black urban areas. Central High, for example, is among the top schools in the state with its magnet program, but it also has traditional educational program and a wide mix of students.
Under the settlement, students could finish those magnet courses but the special payments that help fund their transportation and programs would eventually come to an end.
For the next several years, annual payments would continue at $37.3 million for Little Rock, $20.8 million for Pulaski County and $7.6 million for North Little Rock. The final year of payments would be devoted toward school facilities -- which in many cases remain in need of improvement -- but could not to be used for athletics or administration buildings.
John Walker, a civil rights attorney who represents black school patrons in the desegregation case, said the districts will still need supervision to ensure they're meeting their end of the bargain. He has pledged to file another lawsuit if the Little Rock district doesn't make progress.
"The only thing historic about (the settlement) is that the state no longer will have to pay money after four years for trying to help these districts do what they're supposed to do," Walker said after Friday's hearing.
In case the accord collapses, Marshall set aside time in March at which the desegregation case could still go to trial.
Two years ago, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ordered an immediate end to the desegregation payments, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he hadn't given everyone involved a full hearing. The state subsequently asked to end the payments altogether, and a federal court hearing was set for Dec. 9 on its request. The parties involved in the case negotiated an agreement before then.
The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts already have been declared substantially desegregated by federal judges. But the Pulaski County district has not yet achieved that distinction. Marshall said he might ask attorneys at the January fairness hearing to show how the settlement would help the district toward that goal.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Mo.
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