Five decades and $1 billion after an infamous racial episode made Little Rock, Ark., a national symbol of school segregation, the legal fight to ensure that all of its children receive equal access to education is almost over.
But many challenges still remain, in Little Rock and across the country.
Some of the city’s affluent white neighborhoods have better schools. The district’s black students on average have lower grades and test scores and more disciplinary problems than white students. And racial divisions linger within the integrated Central High School, where riots erupted in 1957 as Gov. Orval Faubus tried to prevent black students from entering.
A day after a key desegregation lawsuit was settled, such stubborn disparities raised the question: Do all children in Little Rock now receive a high-quality education?
“No,” said Joel E. Anderson, chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who led a task force that produced a 1997 report on the future of the city’s public schools.
“The plaintiffs in the lawsuit and school district officials have all made a monumental effort to achieve equal educational access for all children in the district, but there is still a considerable distance to go,” Anderson said by email.
He said that the opening statement of the report still stands: If the people fighting for equality in 1957 could look ahead to the current Little Rock School District, “they almost certainly would have said, ‘No, that is not what we are seeking.'”
Monday’s settlement established an end date for $70 million in annual state payments that fund desegregation efforts, including programs that offer poor black students better opportunities and attract affluent white students into the district.
The extra funding has helped make Central High School one of the nation’s best public schools. Its advanced classes serve as a major draw for white students who live far from campus and make it the flagship school for the city, if not all of Arkansas.
“We produce more nationally recognized scholars than any part of the state,” Superintendent Dexter Suggs said Tuesday.
But at middle schools with a higher percentage of black students, twice as many students score “below basic” on standardized math tests at the end of eighth grade — a pattern that repeats across grades and subjects.
Data from the state Education Department that tracked students between their high school years and their first year of college showed that students from the area’s private high schools were better prepared for college and scored higher on the ACT college entrance exam. Using data from 2011, the most recent year available, all but one private school had at least a quarter of its students meet all of the ACT’s pre-college benchmarks.
No public school in the county reached that mark — not even Central — and the schools that had the highest percentage of black students fared worst on the test, with less than 6 percent of its graduates ready for college.
“The problem is not solved yet,” said John Kirk, chairman of the history department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, who has studied the history of desegregation in the city.
He noted that while the city is roughly 47 percent white and 42 percent black, the school population is two-thirds African-American, which means that many white students are choosing private or charter schools.