LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — More than a half-century after federal troops escorted nine black students into an all-white school, efforts to desegregate Little Rock's classrooms are at another turning point.
The state wants to end its long-running payments for desegregation programs, but three school districts that receive the money say they need it to continue key programs. And a federal judge has accused the schools of delaying desegregation so they can keep receiving an annual infusion of $70 million.
A federal appeals court will hear arguments Monday from both sides. The judges are expected to decide eventually whether Arkansas still has to make the payments and whether two of the districts should remain under court supervision.
The schools, which serve about 50,000 students, have come a long way since 1957, when the governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School. But thousands of white and black children still have to be bused to different neighborhoods every day under one of the nation's largest remaining court-ordered desegregation systems.
Now parents are worried about the schools' future, and some are considering enrolling their children elsewhere.
The districts argue that desegregation should be about giving parents options between good schools, not strictly counting the number of white and black students.
"Anybody can put students on a bus," said Bobby Acklin, assistant superintendent for desegregation at the North Little Rock School District. "It doesn't matter to me who's in the school, as long as we have a good program."
State lawmakers have long derided the payments, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and other officials have pushed to end the practice, too.
The battle over school desegregation persisted for decades after the civil rights movement. In 1982, the city schools sued two neighboring districts and the state for not doing enough to help with desegregation.
Two years later, a federal judge ruled that those districts had wrongfully separated white and black students. In 1989, the schools and the state reached a settlement that required large payments to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts. It is still in effect today.
Some Little Rock schools remain as segregated as the neighborhoods around them. And achieving racial balance is becoming more difficult as families leave the suburbs that supply white students to schools in majority-black city neighborhoods. Despite years of efforts, black students still score much lower on tests than white students.
The settlement did establish popular magnet schools in urban Little Rock, but the money has also been a source of constant controversy. District administrators have fought over how to spend the money. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has alleged that the districts use desegregation funding elsewhere in their budgets.
In May, a federal judge accused the North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts of delaying desegregation to keep getting state money.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller pointed to problems with student achievement and discipline, particularly in Pulaski County, a suburban district that takes in black students from Little Rock and North Little Rock and sends white children to both.
After weeks of testimony, Miller concluded that "few, if any, of the participants in this case have any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children."
Margie Powell, head of the court-appointed Office of Desegregation Monitoring, said the districts "got addicted to the money" rather than finding ways to pay for magnet schools and transfers on their own.
"I certainly understand their fear," Powell said in an interview. "But years ago, we told them, `You guys need to start thinking about ... how you're going to survive without `deseg' money.'"
District leaders said they can't support the same programs without help.
"We need the money," Acklin said, explaining that it pays for initiatives that government monitors have said must be done "to balance the playing field."
Many parents have stayed in Little Rock because of the district's six well-regarded magnet schools. But Miller's ruling could change that. District officials have warned of possible cutbacks and teacher layoffs, although it's unlikely that any magnet schools would be closed if the payments are cut off.
After attending private schools as a child, Tiffany Hadden sent her two children to Gibbs Magnet School, which offers foreign language programs. The potential effect of Miller's ruling worries her, so Hadden put her kids on the waiting list at a charter school in downtown Little Rock.
"I don't want to go anywhere, but I just didn't know what my options were," she said. "I do have to look at what's best for my kids, and I don't have the money to go private."
Even if the federal appeals court overrules Miller and keeps the state's payments in place, it's not clear how long the payments – and the system they support – will last.
After decades of issuing court orders, judges across the country have shown in recent years that they want to get out of school desegregation, said Wendy Parker, a professor at Wake Forest University.
"I think courts have gotten exhausted with it," she said. "I don't think they're stopping because they've been successful. I think they're stopping because they feel it's time to move onto other issues."
In other cities with schools that were desegregated by court order, such as Kansas City, Mo., and Charlotte, N.C., the classrooms eventually went back to reflecting the segregated neighborhoods around them, Parker said.
The Little Rock district was removed from court supervision in 2007, the same time it stopped placing students outside their neighborhoods to balance schools. Magnet schools are still required to be balanced.
North Little Rock and Pulaski County are appealing Miller's order to keep them under partial supervision.
"Everybody loves choice today," Parker said. "But choice by definition allows people to self-segregate."