LITTLE ROCK (AP) — A federal judge ruled Thursday that Arkansas can end most desegregation funding for three Little Rock-area school districts, allowing the state to cut off millions of dollars in payments long derided by lawmakers as doing little to help the schools.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller declared the Pulaski County and North Little Rock school districts "unitary," or substantially desegregated, in several key areas. The third district to receive desegregation money, Little Rock, was declared unitary four years ago.

Miller left in place funding for "majority to minority" transfers in an effort to advance integration.

The three districts receive about $70 million a year. About $21 million goes to pay for the transfers.

In a 110-page ruling, Miller blamed the state and school districts for delaying desegregation, a battle that dates back to when the Little Rock Nine famously integrated a city high school in 1957 despite then-Gov. Orval Faubus’ efforts to keep them out.

"It must be clear that the state of Arkansas has unclean hands," Miller wrote. "Its history is steeped in segregation of schools as well as other public accommodations."

But keeping the payments for school districts has created an "absurd" outcome where the districts are rewarded for not complying with their desegregation plans, Miller said.

"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," Miller wrote. "The time has finally come for all carrots to be put away. These mules must not either pull their proverbial carts on their own or face a very heavy and punitive stick."

Miller also ordered the three districts to show why funding should continue for M-to-M transfers, which allow students in the three districts to go from a school where their race is the majority to a school where their race is a minority.

State officials welcomed Miller’s ruling.

"We are pleased with the ruling, and it is evident that Judge Miller shares our view that it is time to end this cycle of desegregation payments that do not produce their desired results," Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe said.

DeCample said Beebe will discuss with Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell how to carry out Miller’s order.

McDaniel called the ruling "a significant milestone."

"I continue to be focused on the educational needs of the children in these districts, as well as the financial implications of this case on the taxpayers of the State as a whole," he said in a statement released by his office.

Arkansas was a defendant in a 1982 lawsuit that accused it of not doing enough to help the three districts desegregate. The state agreed to a settlement in 1989 that required it provide additional annual funding

Lawmakers have long complained about the desegregation payments, which have totaled more than $980 million, and said the money could have gone to other education needs.

"I think it’s hamstrung us in terms of where money could be spent," said Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, who has regularly called for ending the payments. "That’s been a real challenge in some places."

Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers have been frustrated with what they believe is a lack of progress from the money going to the districts.

"It didn’t seem like they were being directed in a manner that would have been conducive to getting the end result we wanted to," said Jeffress, D-Crossett.

Stephen Jones, an attorney representing the North Little Rock School District, said he was surprised by the ruling and said that no one had filed a motion requesting the end of the state payments.

"The district would take exception with simply cutting off the funding abruptly," Jones said.

Miller ruled that North Little Rock had done enough in several areas, including preventing black dropouts and school construction. He said the district still needed to show it had tried to hire more black teachers before it could leave federal monitoring completely.

Pulaski County, meanwhile, still needed to show much more improvement before it could leave court supervision, Miller said.

"In listening to Pulaski County’s witnesses, it seems that Pulaski County has given very little thought, and even less effort, to complying with its desegregation plan," he wrote.

Pulaski was made unitary in three areas, but remained deficient in nine others, including student achievement, special education and student discipline. Miller describes an incident captured on tape in which a white teacher pushed a black student into a locker during an argument.

"It was with this backdrop that all of the other evidence regarding discipline was received," Miller wrote.

A group of black parents and students known as the Joshua Intervenors, which had contested Little Rock’s efforts to be released from federal monitoring, had challenged the moves by Pulaski County and North Little Rock.

Rep. John Walker, an attorney who represents the intervenors, indicated he was unlikely to appeal the ruling and said that Miller is still keeping the two districts under some federal supervision. He acknowledged that the loss of money would be a financial hit for the schools.

"What it means now is that people are going to have to work for their pay and then they’ll have to be serious about the obligations of their plan," said Walker, D-Little Rock.

Some monitoring will continue as the three districts seek a balanced racial makeup for their students.

The Little Rock and North Little Rock districts are predominantly black, while the surrounding Pulaski County Special School District is predominantly white.

Miller, who referred to himself as "a middle aged black judge," suggested the districts have a long way to go.

"After reading the briefs, the transcripts from the various hearings, and the scores of exhibits filed herein," Miller wrote, "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."