Friday, May 20, 2011

EDITORIAL >>Schools look to a new era

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller’s order Thursday phasing out state desegregation funds for the three Pulaski County schools was not unexpected. When attorneys for the county districts appeared before the judge last year, he suggested that $70 million in state aid to the schools was a waste and he might cut off the spigot.

He ordered the ending of most of the state aid, except about $7 million a year for county magnet schools — a pittance compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in state money that were spent on the Pulaski County schools for a quarter century.

The judge did not declare the districts “unitary,” or functionally integrated, and they will remain under court supervision. Still, he didn’t think he could justify spending more state money on the schools.

On another note, the judge’s review of PCSSD’s geographic size could provide hope for the Jack-sonville Education Foundation and those who dream of a separate Jacksonville district.

The ruling is an admission that hundreds of millions in state funding have not achieved the goals set by the courts. That may why Judge Miller thinks court supervision must continue but without the cushion of extra state aid.

Appeals are likely and the case could drag on for many more years. Don’t be surprised if an appeal is filed by one of the parties involved — perhaps civil rights attorney John Walker, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the long-running case, that goes back to the 1980s and even as far back as the 1950s, when Little Rock schools were first ordered integrated.

The county school will have to get by with less. Bobby Lester, the former Pulaski County Special School District superintendent, told us a few weeks ago the district could manage without the state aid and called for more belt-tightening. That’s pretty much what Superintendent Charles Hopson told us Friday: The desegregation money has dwindled to less than $20 million a year, and about a third of that goes for magnet school programs, which the judge wants continued in any event.

Hopson, interestingly enough, has no quarrel with the judge. His school board might feel differently when it meets next week to discuss the decision.

Judge Miller said school officials do not “have any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children.” Hopson thinks he has the answer with better facilities and more challenging programs.

Judge Miller knows the history of this case very well. “It must be clear that the state of Arkansas has unclean hands,” he wrote in his ruling. “Its history is steeped in segregation of schools as well as other public accommodations. Indeed, but for the discriminatory actions of the state of Arkansas and Governor Faubus, the school districts at issue would be much further along the road to fully desegregating.”

Gov. Mike Beebe, who is no Faubus, says he’s delighted that the state can reduce funding to the Pulaski County schools, while other districts in Arkansas are clamoring for more aid. The Legislature has approved $70 million for the Pulaski County schools for next year, so that money will go somewhere in the educational bureaucracy, perhaps to train better teachers. Let’s hope it’s spent more wisely than in the past.