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Achievement, not numbers, focus of district's desegregation

By Kevin Drew

Ann Marshall: Desegregation is a "whole value system."
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CNN's Dan Lothian looks back at the pivotal Supreme Court ruling that forced the integration of U.S. public schools and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement. (May 15)
Federal desegregation monitor Ann Marshall on the meaning of desegregation.
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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (CNN) -- As it becomes increasingly more segregated, Little Rock School District is also inching toward complete desegregation.

The apparent paradox comes from the conflicting public perception and court definition of what desegregation means. (Supreme Court rulings on desegregation)

"It's really important not to think of desegregation as just a body count," said Ann Marshall, head of the federal Office of Desegregation Monitoring. "It's not just a matter of white kids and black kids sitting together. It's a whole value system" of equal chances for both races.

Little Rock School District's progress toward being declared desegregated by the government has been slowed by the city's changing neighborhoods and disputes among local education and government leaders, experts say.

The separation of races resulting from government action is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has ruled. But separation resulting from families making voluntary choices about where to live is legal.

"For some reason it seems so difficult to build a plan, and then work the plan," Marshall said.

A June hearing will evaluate the school district's programs to improve and monitor the achievements of minority students - a federal requirement and an important step toward being declared desegregated. The district has a financial incentive to be declared desegregated. If it reaches that goal by June 30, the state will forgive a $5 million loan.

But the path toward desegregation has been full of obstacles.

As whites began to leave Little Rock's inner city and increasingly place their children in suburban and private schools, Little Rock School District's schools became increasingly African-American. In the early 1980s, it sued two other local school districts and the state of Arkansas for practices that hindered desegregation, and sought consolidation of the districts.

Little Rock initially won its lawsuit, but the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision supporting consolidation.

"They've been defeated with certain desegregation efforts," acknowledges Harvard's Gary Orfield of the Little Rock School District. In the 1980s, Orfield had testified in the Little Rock consolidation case, and urged the city's school districts to merge.

Local administrators today are focusing on attainable desegregation goals, Orfield says, such as continuing magnet school and student transfer programs.

After the ruling not to merge school districts, a group of people who called themselves "Joshua Intervenors" sued the Little Rock district, saying it had not done enough to desegregate.

The district and the plaintiffs agreed to a desegregation plan in 1998. A federal judge declared in 2002 that the district had substantially complied with most of its provisions, all except evaluating minority achievement programs.

John Walker, attorney for the Joshua Intervenors, claims the Little Rock School District is operating separate tiers of education, with honors courses filled with white students, and basic courses primarily filled with minority students.

"Our position is, after you spend $300 million or more on desegregation, all the stuff they have done should show better results," Walker said in an interview.

Observers say a declaration of complete desegregation -- unitary in the legal term -- is likely another year or two away for Little Rock schools. The district will probably be told this summer to evaluate more programs for minorities, according to the federal court monitor of the district.

"I think that they're (school district) going to have a lot of trouble convincing the court that they've evaluated enough, because they just haven't," explains federal monitor Marshall.

Chris Heller, an attorney who represents Little Rock School District, noted Little Rock's white flight and said the school district has done all that can be expected.

"It puts the (school) district in a difficult position, trying to become unitary in segregated residential patterns beyond the district's control."

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