A judge in one of the nation's longest-running school desegregation cases released the Little Rock district from federal supervision Friday, nearly 50 years after President Eisenhower sent in troops to escort nine black students into all-white Central High.
U.S. District Judge William R. Wilson Jr. said the district is substantially complying with a 1998 desegregation plan worked out in the 27,000-student district.
With blacks gaining a majority on the school board in September, the judge said he felt comfortable that the district would keep working to improve academic achievement among its black students.
In 1957, despite a U.S. Supreme Court order, Gov. Orval Faubus tried to thwart black students from enrolling at Central High, setting off one of the biggest crises of the civil rights era. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne to enforce the order.
'1957 is not 2007'
"The district has been given back to the people of this community, and my pledge to them is to continue to work hard and recognize that we're all going to have to work hard," said Superintendent Roy Brooks, who is black. "I think that this is a clear indication that 1957 is not 2007."
The 1998 desegregation plan was negotiated among the district, federal monitors and a group called the Joshua Intervenors, a group representing black students. Wilson noted that another nine years had passed before its conditions were satisfied.
"LRSD's board can now operate the district as it sees fit; answerable to no one except LRSD's students and patrons and the voters who elected (the board) to office," Wilson wrote. "I want to express my heartfelt best wishes as LRSD continues to operated, as our Founders intended, under control of the citizens of the City of Little Rock."
A final sticking point among the parties had been whether the district adequately assessed black achievement in its academic programs.
"I am optimistic that the board will continue to ensure that the comprehensive program assessment progress remains a permanent part of (the school district's) curriculum for as long as it takes to improve the academic achievement of African-American students," Wilson wrote.
Tied up by test scores
Under previous Wilson orders, the Little Rock district was to evaluate its academic programs annually to determine whether test scores among black students were rising. Until Friday, Wilson was not satisfied with the district's response, which included the board's December resolution that it would continue evaluations even if Wilson released it from monitoring.
"LRSD has gone the extra mile to ensure that its program assessment process is and will continue to be a permanent part of its curriculum," Wilson wrote. He also noted that the district has streamlined the way it warehouses data for use in future evaluations.
Little Rock was the scene of a 1957 showdown between Faubus and Eisenhower on whether black students should be allowed to attend then-all-white Central High School. Faubus called out National Guard troops to prevent nine black students from entering the school, but Eisenhower federalized them and summoned troops from the 101st Airborne to escort the children onto the campus.
In ceremonies marking the 40-year anniversary, President Clinton and then-Gov. Mike Huckabee held the doors open for the Little Rock Nine as they walked through the high school's grand entrance. A statue of the nine stands on the state Capitol grounds, just outside the governor's office. The U.S. Mint is producing a coin commemorating the events.
John Walker, a lawyer for the Joshua Intervenors, said black students would not be served by the ruling.
"We're certainly disappointed in view of the lack of progress this district has made in addressing the needs of African-American students," he said. "The standard was not high for the district to meet, but they certainly have not met it. We will have to pursue other means."
Under the 1998 desegregation agreement, the district wasn't required to eliminate an achievement gap between black students and white students, but Wilson has held the district accountable for a provision in the plan that requires the school officials to evaluate the effect of programs on black students.
New standard around 'good faith'
In his ruling Friday, Wilson said a previous directive that the Little Rock board "deeply embed" the assessment process as a permanent part of district operations was too high a standard _ "like trying to reach the mirage in the desert."
He said he should have previously adopted a "good faith" standard _ and that a black-majority board would ensure that at least that standard is met.
"All seven board members agreed that improving the academic achievement of African-American students is of great importance, and that the district will need to continue to implement, assess and evaluate ... programs for the foreseeable future," Wilson wrote.
In Little Rock, as is the case nationwide, black students on average score below their white classmates on standardized tests. The gap in Little Rock is as large as 40 points on both state and national standardized tests. Little Rock has seen some improvement.
Board member Michael Daugherty said the district still must spend its money to close the achievement gap among students.
"I would have liked to have seen us a little bit farther along right now than where we are," said Daugherty, who is black. "I think the district needs to be further along in the allocation of resources in the district."
School board member Baker Kurrus, who is white, called Wilson's decision "a well-deserved endorsement."
"We have to prove that we're capable of managing our district and make sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated," Kurrus said. "We simply must reach all students in our district."