A federal appeals court overturned a lower court ruling in a decision that will force the state of Arkansas to continue annual desegregation payments to three central Arkansas school districts.

The ruling from a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis reversed a decision earlier this year from U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who said the state could end its payments to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special School Districts.

At the time, Miller said the roughly $38 million transferred annually was slowing desegregation efforts.

“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. 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,” Miller wrote in an opinion in May.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), working in conjunction with attorney and State Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock), said the ruling granted “nearly all of the relief that LDF sought on behalf of its clients,” the Joshua intervenors — a representative group of African-American students in the districts.

“This ruling vindicates the ongoing pursuit of quality education for African-American students in Pulaski County, Arkansas,” said Walker, who has litigated the case for over three decades.

LDF attorney Damon Hewitt, Director of LDF’s Education Practice Group, added, “Today’s opinion should send a clear message to school districts throughout the country that compliance with desegregation orders is not optional.  Both the courts and communities will hold these districts to both the letter and spirit of the law.”

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) told Stephens Media that the state “continues to move positively toward ending this litigation and taking the courts out of the classrooms of Pulaski County.”

“With the Little Rock and North Little Rock school districts now fully unitary, (Wednesday’s) decision reminds us that taxpayer-funded desegregation payments are not perpetual, nor should they be seen as such,” McDaniel said.

In its Wednesday ruling, the appeals court also declared the North Little Rock School District unitary, or desegregated, but overturned Judge Miller’s determination that the Pulaski County Special School District had achieved unitary status.