A school bus is parked near Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Jan.13, 2014. A federal judge began hearing arguments Monday about whether to approve a settlement agreement that would allow the state to stop making payments to help fund racial integration in three Little Rock-area school districts. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
A school bus is parked near Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, Jan.13, 2014. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

KELLY P. KISSEL, Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A federal judge said Monday that Arkansas can stop making payments in one of the nation’s most historic desegregation efforts but cautioned that work remains to ensure Little Rock-area students receive a proper education.

The state has made more than $1 billion in payments to three Little Rock-area school districts since 1989 to aid desegregation efforts. Under the deal approved by U.S. District Judge Price Marshall on Monday, those payments will end in four years, even though one of the districts still hasn’t been declared desegregated.

“I think this is a day we can write in the book and draw a circle around and remember that we did something important,” Marshall said. He said his objective was to ensure the agreement among lawyers for the state, the districts and black schoolchildren was fair, reasonable and adequate.

“There comes a time … where things should stop and things should go in the book,” Marshall said. “This is a fair and appropriate place to have a stop.”

Little Rock was the scene of the nation’s first major desegregation battle when President Dwight Eisenhower used federal troops to escort nine black schoolchildren into Central High School, the city system’s flagship school. Court cases involving desegregation have been in place during most years since then.

The case settled Monday stemmed from a 1982 lawsuit when the Little Rock district said policies among the state and the North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts left all schools countywide with a racial imbalance. Under a 1989 settlement, the state agreed to give the districts more money, but the funding never ended.

Federal judges have declared the Little Rock and North Little Rock districts essentially desegregated, or unitary, but have withheld that designation for the Pulaski County Special School District, which surrounds the city districts. The districts have a combined 49,000 students.

A main shortcoming in the county is its outdated facilities; the district will remain subject to the court.

State payments to the other districts have remained in place to fund magnet schools and programs in which students could transfer from districts where they were in the majority to where they’d be in the minority.

The payments, which total nearly $70 million a year, will continue for four years. Funds distributed in the final year must be dedicated to improving facilities.

Parent Markell Foreman Sr., whose son Markell Foreman Jr. is a junior studying chemical engineering in the Little Rock district’s magnate school program, said he’s not concerned about the districts losing funds, provided they make up for it in ways that don’t hurt education. For example, the districts have said their transportation costs will be reduced because they won’t have to bus transfer students.

“If they’re going to save $3 million, they could probably spend $2 million of that on the kids,” Foreman said Monday night after the judge announced his decision.

The physician assistant graduated from Central High in the 1990s and said his son has opportunities through the magnate school program that he didn’t have.

“It’s a lot more advanced as far as education is concerned,” Foreman said.

Despite any changes in the school systems over the years, some testimony Monday gave the judge pause — allegations of an achievement gap between black and white students and that the state isn’t monitoring to make sure schools achieve racial balance — but said he was satisfied the districts had plans for when the money was gone.

“While it’s not the end of the matter … it takes us very far down the road,” Marshall said.

John Walker, a lawyer for black schoolchildren, signed onto the agreement but noted ahead of the hearing that even the districts determined to be desegregated still favor white children. He noted a new high school in heavily-white Maumelle and a new middle school in the Chenal neighborhood of Little Rock — two of the wealthier enclaves in the state — and has said he would file a new lawsuit if necessary.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel had wanted the payments to stop immediately but agreed to negotiate an end to the payments over time.

“Generations of kids were wronged by the intentional segregation of the races and we know that. That was wrong for all students, black and white,” McDaniel said after the settlement was approved.

Without an agreement, Marshall would have held a trial in March on the state’s request to end the payments immediately.

Objections raised in court Monday included whether students in magnet school programs could continue in their current curricula and whether students in majority-to-minority transfers can stay where they are until graduation. Only so-called M-to-M transfers can remain until receiving a diploma.

Marshall could not modify the terms of the agreement; he could only approve or reject it.

A federal judge in 2011 attempted to end the funding, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him, saying no party had asked to end the payments. Then, federal Judge Brian Miller said the state had used a carrot-and-stick approach, but that the districts had learned how to “eat the carrot and sit down on the job” by not doing everything possible to integrate schools.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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