Eligibility for free- and reduced-price school meals would replace race as a criteria for attending magnet schools, and charter schools would enact more stringent enrollment requirements if a Little Rock School District proposal for revising a 1989 state desegregation settlement is adopted.
Attorneys for the Little Rock district and other parties in the 27-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit met Tuesday morning with the Arkansas attorney general and his staff to discuss those and other possible terms for changing the 1989 agreement to reflect changes in federal desegregation law and the advent of charter schools.
The proposal does not call for the end of state desegregation funding to the three Pulaski County school districts, which totals nearly $70 million a year.
The proposal does suggest that the settlement, once revised, be subject to periodic review. Once the county's residential neighborhoods reach a specific degree of desegregation, the agreement would be subject to further revisions or termination.
"Today, our office received a settlement proposal in this case in response to the settlement offer the state proposed last year,” Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said after the two-hour meeting.
He said he needed time to analyze the proposal and to consult with the Legislature, the state Department of Education, community leaders and education advocates across the state about the proposed settlement terms.
"Our mutual desire is to work together in an effort to settle this case once and for all,” he said. "Everyone at today's meeting was committed to moving forward to ensure the best quality education possible to the children of these school districts and to try to finally end this decades long litigation for the state as whole,” McDaniel said.
Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock School District, characterized the morning discussion among the attorneys as "positive and productive but preliminary.”
"All parties seemed willing to proceed quickly and in good faith to identify areas of agreement and to attempt to resolve the issues on which we will disagree,” Heller said in an e-mail message to Little Rock School Board members. "We expect to have further discussions by the end of next week.”
The meeting comes after Act 395 of 2007, which directed state officials to attempt to negotiate a seven-year phaseout of state desegregation aid to the three Pulaski County districts. In all, state desegregation funding to the districts is nearing $1 billion since 1989.
Earlier negotiations were all but stalled for more than a year, largely because of disagreements between the districts and the state on the effect that 10 independently run charter schools in Pulaski County are having on desegregation efforts in the traditional public schools.
The districts have argued that the charter schools pull higher-achieving, more-affluent students from the traditional schools, leaving the districts with fewer resources to educate a more-needy population.
Last month, the Little Rock board voted 4-3 to legally challenge the state's practice of establishing charter schools in Pulaski County without regard to their effect on desegregation. At that same School Board meeting, however, an assistant attorney general expressed a willingness to include charter-school issues in settlement negotiations.
Tuesday's meeting of attorneys and any resulting meetings are considered a last-ditch effort to avoid litigation over charter schools or a state request to the federal court to immediately stop the desegregation funding.
At issue Tuesday was a seven-page proposal developed by the Little Rock district.
The proposal calls for using student eligibility for free- and reduced-priced school meals in place of race in selecting students to attend magnet schools. Eligibility for the subsidized meals is based on a student's family income.
Magnet schools feature special academic programs designed to attract black and white students. Students who apply for the magnet schools are selected by a random drawing so that the schools are ideally about 50 percent black and 50 percent white.
The proposal also recommends phasing out the majority-to-minority interdistrict student transfer program in which students can transfer from a district and school in which they are part of the majority race to another district and school where their race is in the minority.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently placed restrictions on using race in assigning students to schools. The Little Rock district said in its proposal that using a student's eligibility for the school-lunch program would be a race-neutral alternative to achieving the goals of the 1989 settlement.
About 80 percent of Little Rock students eligible for subsidized meals are black. As a result, if a magnet school is populated by a mix of students who are and are not eligible for subsidized meals, the school is likely to be racially diverse, as well.
As for the majority-to-minority transfer program, the district proposed replacing it with a program that would enable Little Rock students in schools with high poverty rates to transfer to a more economically diverse school. State-funded transportation would be provided.
Additionally, the Little Rock district proposed changes for the open-enrollment charter schools in the county.
Charter schools with high percentages of nonblack students - Academics Plus, e-Stem, Lisa Academy and Lisa Academy, North Little Rock - would become magnet schools and meet the enrollment requirements set for Little Rock's existing magnet schools. However, the charter schools would remain independent and governed by their charters or contracts with the state.
If the schools' recruiting doesn't produce a significant number of applicants eligible for subsidized meals, a weighted lottery would be used to give students from poor families a greater chance of selection for the charter school.
The Little Rock district also is recommending probation for Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle for failing to comply with the 20 percent black student enrollment required by its charter.
Regarding the Dreamland, Covenant Keepers, Little Rock Preparatory, Jacksonville Lighthouse Academy and the not-yet-opened Urban Collegiate Preparatory charter schools, the Little Rock district is proposing that 80 percent of their new enrollees each year qualify for free- or reduced-price school meals and/or be achieving at a basic level or below on state exams.
In seeking state charters, those schools each proposed serving a high population of low-achieving, low-income students but did not set specific percentages.
Charter schools would provide students from low-income families or who are special-education students with transportation to and from school, and the state would reimburse the charter schools for that expense, according to the Little Rock proposal.
The Little Rock district also called for any new or expanded charter schools in Pulaski County to be approved by the federal court. New charter schools would be established only for the purpose of improving the achievement of black students or students who score at basic or below on state tests.