(CN) - Three Little Rock, Ark.-area school districts asked a federal judge to stay his new ruling that would remove state-sponsored desegregation programs from schools that he found have leeched more than $980 million since 1989, in essence getting rewarded for bad behavior.
"It seems that the State of Arkansas is using a carrot and stick approach with these districts but that the districts are wise mules that have learned how to eat the carrot and sit down on the job," U.S. District Judge Brian Miller wrote. "The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must now either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick."
Efforts to fund student integration in "good faith and substantial compliance" of state desegregation plans have led to an "absurd" outcome for Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts, according to the 110-page ruling.
Although the funding is meant to ensure that the districts meet benchmarks in staff recruitment, student assignment, discipline and a host of other areas, they fail to do so and yet keep collecting state aid, Miller said Thursday.
The percentage of black teachers in North Little Rock has dropped since the 1980s; honors programs in Pulaski County found to be "disproportionately" white; and a surveillance video caught one white teacher in Pulaski pushing a black student into a locker.
"It is very easy to conclude that few if any of the participants in this case have any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children," Miller said.
The judge said he reached this conclusion after extensive hearings and ultimately "appalling" and "mindless" witness testimony.
One witness touted the benefits of allowing black students to rap in class as a tool to teach reading and proper English.
"At first blush, it might seem understandable for this witness to assume that a middle aged black judge would find this appealing, that presumption is simply untrue," Miller wrote. "In fact, it was appalling."
The school districts much catch up to an evolving definition of desegregation, which should encompass racial equity in the instruction, facilities and extracurricular activities of schools, according to the ruling.
"Desegregation does not mean what many of us think it means," Miller wrote. "Desegregation does not mean that black families should be free to send their children to their neighborhood schools."
He added: "It is for great concern that a number of the various participants in this case seem to believe there is some magic spell that will do the trick, such as some special racially-based formula or program. Even more concerning, however, is that it seems that some of the participants do not really care."
Arkansas school districts were order to embrace desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the "separate but equal" holding in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson.
"[I]n the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for the unanimous 1954 court in Brown. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
In 1957, at the height of desegregation tensions, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to block nine black students' entry to the all-white Central High School, part of the Little Rock School District. A federal judge enjoined Faubus' actions, and the president dispatched U.S. troops were sent to enforce the injunction and protect the black students.
In the decades since, Little Rock and the other districts have adopted many plans to aid desegregation efforts, and gains have been hard fought.
Thursday's ruling strikes down the state's obligation to pay for any and all of the districts' desegregation efforts, save "majority to minority" transfers - students within the districts that transfer out of a school where their race is the majority to a school where they are in the minority.
About $21 million of $70 million in annual desegregation funds that the districts receive go to majority-to-minority funding, and Miller ordered the districts to show cause for continued transfer funding within 30 days.
"In no way is the State of Arkansas given credit or 'brownie points' for providing funds to the districts to help them desegregate," Miller wrote. "Further, no sympathy is given the state for having to pay the funds that it has paid. It must be clear that the State of Arkansas has unclean hands. Its history is steeped in segregation of schools as well as other public accommodations. Indeed, but for the discriminatory actions of the State of Arkansas and Governor Faubus, the school districts at issue would be much further along the road to fully desegregating."
"And, it seems that it is time to move in a different direction; toward punishing dilatory behavior and away from rewarding it," he added.
North Little Rock appealed the decision on Friday, and the districts filed a motion to stay the ruling on Monday, claiming lost funds may lead to teacher layoffs.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.