Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel (D) says he is committed to ending the long-running desegregation case involving 3 Pulaski County school districts and is surprised that recent developments haven't sparked settlement talks.
In an interview on Tuesday (July 10) with Talk Business executive editor Roby Brock, McDaniel discussed the history of the case and where it stands today, his commitment to public education, and his interest in finding a “tangible conclusion” to the desegregation litigation. You can watch video comments from McDaniel at the bottom of this post.
Talk Business: We had a couple of questions about the desegregation lawsuit and where that stands. Give us a status update on where that is — you've made a recent court filing to try to move that along.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel: Public education is critical to the people of Arkansas. I am a product of public education. My daughter's in public schools. I believe that the advancements we've made over the last generation and certainly in the last decade have been critical to moving Arkansas forward economically.
When I came to office, I had 3 big education goals. One was to get us out of the Lake View case. Two, was to keep us out of the Lake View case, which is not easy. And three, was to bring about a tangible end to the desegregation case.
We not only got out of Lake View in '07, but we haven't been back. And I'm proud of every session spending time directly with legislators to walk through Lake View implications of virtually every education bill.
Desegregation is harder. In 1989, I was still in high school when the settlement agreement was executed. It's cost the taxpayers over a billion dollars, almost a billion I think.
We've seen a lot of advancement as a result of court involvement. The achievement gap, as it's called; the true integration of the districts — now all 3 school districts are almost 100% unitary, according to the courts.
I tried to settle this case a couple of years ago. The legislature gave me authority. I offered roughly $400 million to settle it and I tried to offer more than that. They wouldn't call me back because they wanted some assurance that no more charter schools would ever be created. I don't have legal authority to make that promise.
So then when Judge Miller surprised us all and immediately ordered the discontinuation of payments, the superintendents of all 3 districts were on television saying, “Well, gosh, if we just had a year to plan and budget for this, we'd be fine.”
offered them 7 years, $400-$450 million and they wouldn't even discuss it with me. So here we are today and the 8th Circuit has ordered us to have a hearing to talk about the discontinuation of the payments. And, I'm surprised that no realistic settlement discussions have been opened. I would still love to see this settled in a way that's beneficial and realistic for the taxpayers and for the districts.
They're our 3 largest districts. They need to know that just because we would end the litigation doesn't mean we would ever end our commitment as a state to their success and to their students' success. I want to see them not just be our 3 largest, but our 3 best school districts. I'd like to see them as our flagship districts for economic reasons and for the moral reasons and the constitutional reasons that led us into this litigation in the first place.
But if they won't settle it, I will continue to be very bullish on trying to force a tangible conclusion.
Talk Business: Are you satisfied that from the origin of this in 1989 that those 3 school districts are properly desegregated?
McDaniel: According to the courts…
Talk Business: I'm not asking about according to the court, I'm asking about your opinion, according to Dustin McDaniel's opinion. Are you satisfied that they are [desegregated]?
McDaniel: My opinion doesn't matter. The courts are the ones that make the determination. What I can tell you and what I truly believe is that one of the reasons that people have left the Pulaski County school districts and found other opportunities either in Faulkner County or Saline County or Lonoke County or private schools or whatever, is not because they don't trust the schools or not because they don't like the schools and not even some of the other reasons that people throw around rather casually.
But if you move to town and you've got 2 banks in the town and one of them is wrapped up in litigation and fighting with the board and constantly at battle with the regulators and the other one is just tending to business, you don't really care who's right and who's wrong at that bank, you're just going to put your money in the other bank.
I think that people want to see us get past being litigation adversaries and get back about the business of being education partners. That is what I think would be the very best thing for these school districts so they can show parents and patrons and out of state business prospects we're getting our business done and educating our kids and doing what needs to be done and we're not constantly fighting in court.