Columns » Max Brantley

Free at last

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As a matter of legal process, last week’s release of the Little Rock School District from federal court supervision of its desegregation effort was big news.

But I’ve never shared the article of faith in the corporate boardrooms of Little Rock – that school litigation was somehow the source of most of the ills in Little Rock’s public schools.

(Note, too, that Little Rock’s release doesn’t mean dismissal of the 24-year-old countywide lawsuit and won’t until the North Little Rock and Pulaski County school districts get similar releases. They haven’t even requested them yet.)

Lawsuit or no lawsuit, children enrolled in school, went to class and received instruction. I don’t think anyone can credibly argue that the ongoing court case affected that a bit, except positively. The lawsuit advanced the interests of black students in receiving equal education opportunities, if not outcomes.

The cost of the litigation was always badly exaggerated. Little Rock has spent $11.3 million in 25 years, not even $500,000 a year on average. That’s a pittance in a district with a budget nearing a quarter-billion annually. And, for the umpteenth time, no, civil rights lawyer John Walker doesn’t get a regular paycheck for his work.

Little Rock may be out of court, but it rests as precariously as ever. The district’s boundaries are fixed. They do not grow with the city. Most city growth is beyond the district’s western borders, thanks to an unconscionable sellout to development interests by the Little Rock Board of Directors.

The school district’s school-age population is blacker and poorer than the city as a whole. It is almost a miracle that the school district still has 30 percent white enrollment, given massive white flight to suburbs and private schools.

Little Rock has retained a substantial white enrollment thanks in part to this very lawsuit, which brought hundreds of millions in state aid to enhance programs and create magnet schools that lure white students from neighboring districts. The declaration of “unitary status” is bad news in this respect. It’s a solid step toward the end of that state aid in several years, which could be a devastating blow to magnet schools and a continued diverse student population.

The lawsuit also has returned Little Rock to a district of neighborhood schools, where there is no “forced busing” for racial balance. This attendance plan has held many higher-income residents in public schools. That, in turn, explains a number of centers of academic achievement rarely rivaled in Arkansas. Why? Well-educated, well-off families tend to have higher achieving children. Oddly, however, this has only further exaggerated the achievement gap between black and white students. Among those who’ve fled the district have been a number of higher-income blacks and lower-income whites. The economic divide is starkly illustrated in test outcomes.

So, big deal, the lawsuit is over. It won’t change circumstances. Little Rock remains a landlocked school district with a large population of low-income students, a demographic group that has defied broad improvement by readily replicable means anywhere in the U.S. — whether by vouchers, charter schools, merit pay, private schools or conventional public schools.

Clearly, with court supervision or without, hard work remains. And the public school haters will need to find a new whipping boy now that they don’t have the lawsuit to kick around any more. What do you bet teachers’ rear ends will prove an inviting target?

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