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Wednesday, Sep. 2, 2015

Local implications unclear on strike down of School Choice Law

Thursday, July 5, 2012

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For over two decades, students have been able to choose the school in which they wish to attend thanks to the Arkansas School Choice Law of 1989. June 8, a Federal Judge struck the law down, deeming it unconstitutional based on the 14th Amendment.

The implications of the ruling affect many families in the area who have transferred their children to outlying school districts. The main question is whether they will be forced to return to the district in which they live, or if transfers prior to the ruling will be grandfathered in, allowing them to remain in the district they have attended since their transfer.

Locally, many students either commute or meet buses from surrounding school districts to attend a school they feel best fits their individual needs.

The Arkansas School Choice Law was overturned and declared unconstitutional by Federal Judge Robert Dawson after a group challenged the law. After the law was struck down, Jess Askew, a Little Rock attorney for the families who filed the lawsuit that led to the ruling, said his clients will appeal the ruling because they feel the judge went too far--stating it was never their intent the entire law be struck down.

"While our clients agree with the decision that the race-based section violated the equal protection clause, my clients disagree with the judge's decision to throw out the entire statute," Askew said to The Arkansas News Bureau. "We think the decision creates uncertainty for the students and parents who have already made transfers under this statute in the past."

Judge Dawson ruled in a 32-page order that a race-based provision in the 1989 Arkansas Public School Choice Act violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Dawson said the provision was not severable from the entire act and prevented the state from applying the School Choice Act. "The state must employ a more nuanced, individualized evaluation of school and student needs, which, while they may include race as a component, may not base enrollment or transfer options solely on race," Dawson wrote.

The state argued that the race-based provision in the statute was needed to preserve desegregation efforts. Askew said his clients were aware when they filed the lawsuit in 2010 that there was a possibility the judge could strike down the entire statute.

Because a number of parties plan to challenge Dawson's ruling, a request was made that the judge delay entering a final order barring transfers between districts. Dawson agreed to the enforcement delay, allowing schools to accept transfer requests for the upcoming school year. The deadline to request the transfers was July 1.

Jason French, a spokesman for the Attorney General's office told the Villager Journal a statement would be issued regarding the ruling but, at press time, no information had been received.

State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell told news agencies after the ruling that state Department of Education attorneys were working with the attorney general's office "to determine what future legal steps, if any, the (Department of Education) will take regarding this matter."

"That statute is one of a few statutes in Arkansas which allows students to attend school at a school district other than the school district in which the student resides," Kimbrell explained in an interview. "I have asked my staff to review all the effects of this ruling on our students, parents and school districts, including on those students who were granted school choice approval under the (act) prior to the ruling."

The lawsuit that led to the law being overturned was a result of a group of parents with children attending the Malvern School District who filed the lawsuit in 2010 after an attempt to transfer their children to the Magnet Cove School District under the Arkansas Public School Choice Act. Their petitions were later denied because the children are white.

The lawsuit was filed against the Arkansas Board of Education, its individual members and the Magnet Cove School District.

According to Department of Education estimates, the Malvern School District has an approximate 60 percent white population while the Magnet School District is nearly 95 percent white.

According to language within the law, a student is allowed to transfer to another district, "provided that the transfer by this student would not adversely affect the desegregation of either school." The law also outlines other race issues including, "no student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student's race exceeds the percentage in the student's resident district."

The judge's ruling explained that severing the race-based provision from the rest of the Public School Choice Act of 1989 "would undermine the intent of the General Assembly."

He also added, that the fact the provision was included within the law, it demonstrated that the General Assembly had taken into consideration that unlimited choice of schools could defeat integration and could create a liability.

Until appeals are heard, the future of the School Choice Law is unclear.



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