School Officials Concerned
Districts: ‘Wait And See’ Impact On School Choice Ruling
Posted: June 12, 2012 at 5:37 a.m.
NORTHWEST ARKANSAS School districts in Northwest Arkansas are waiting to learn from state officials what they must do about students who transferred or who want to transfer from their home districts to another.
Friday’s ruling by a federal judge that the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1999, which established rules for allowing students to move among districts, is unconstitutional raises questions about what the districts should or can do.
“As of last Friday, there is no authority to grant transfers under that particular statute,” said Seth Blomeley, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Education. The education department is working with the attorney general’s office to determine how to handle students who are already attending school in a nonresident district.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled Friday the act is unconstitutional because of a race-based restriction in the law.
“This definitely has us concerned,” said John Karnes, West Fork superintendent. “School choice is definitely a big impact for the West Fork School District.”
West Fork benefited when about 75 Greenland and Winslow students sought transfers under the school choice law after the Greenland School District closed elementary and high schools in Winslow.
Winslow was annexed into the Greenland district to comply with a state law on school size.
West Fork lies between Greenland and Winslow.
Only 10 of those 75 were allowed to transfer because of the racial makeup of the West Fork District. The school choice law places limitations on transfers if they will upset the racial makeup of a district.
Last year, 52 students were admitted to West Fork under school choice. The district already has 34 applications for the 2012-13 school year. The deadline is July 1.
Charles Cudney, Greenland superintendent, said his district’s enrollment has been stable for the last several years, but noted the school choice situation now could be a “major disruption” for the coming school year.
“It leaves parents and students uncertain,” Cudney said. “We’re waiting like everyone else to see how this will play out.”
David Matthews, Rogers School District attorney, was one of the original sponsors of the school choice law in 1989 when he was a member of the Arkansas Legislature. He said Monday he doubts the ruling will have much affect on Northwest Arkansas students because he isn’t aware of much participation in school choice by the five largest districts in this area.
At the time the bill was drafted, sponsors were concerned with two drawbacks: football recruiting and the departure of white students in some districts that could reverse years of desegregation efforts, Matthews recalled.
“We tried to fix it so neither one of those apply,” Matthews said.
Last school year 25 students transferred into the Rogers School District as part of the School Choice Act. Seven have already applied this year.
Rudy Moore Jr., Fayetteville School District attorney, advises his client to wait until the Education Department provides guidance.
AT A GLANCE
Thousands of Arkansas schoolchildren, including students in Northwest Arkansas, were thrown into limbo Friday when U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled the school choice law, on the books since 1989, unconstitutional because of a race-based restriction. School districts across Arkansas are now faced with dealing with applications already received for next school year as well as hundreds of students now attending schools in other districts because of school choice.
Source: Staff Report
Moore and several school heads said they feel certain the case will be appealed.
Several students were denied admission to the Fayetteville School District last year because of the racial balance provision in the law.
Alan Wilbourn, public information officer, said 18 students applied to Fayetteville under school choice for the 2011-12 school year. Of those, eight were denied.
“We’re waiting like everyone else,” Wilbourn said.
Charles Harwell, Springdale School District attorney, said he has not yet spoken with administrators about how to handle the court ruling.
“We probably want to wait to see what all shakes out,” he said.
Dawson’s ruling put students who want to ask for a transfer in limbo and could impact thousands of students statewide who are attending school in nonresident districts.
That’s a concern raised by Michael Poore, Bentonville superintendent.
“It is interesting to think what the results really mean,” Poore said. “What happens to those kids who have choiced out? Do they go back to their districts?”
The district had 60 students decide to transfer out of its schools during the 2011 and 2012 school year. No students were allowed to transfer into the district.
“It would be a financial burden,” said Brad Reed, district student services director. “If we were not a district that was growing by 500 to 600 students a year then we would be able to take some transfers.”
Reed said a district policy protects the district from accepting transfers when schools are full.
Reed projects an increase of 540 students for next year. If this happens, the district will have 14,663 students overall. Several elementary schools already have waiting lists, along with two middle schools.
Poore said if the 60 students come back to Bentonville, it will only add to overcrowding.
“In this state, one kid makes a difference,” Poore said, mentioning state laws that mandate a certain teacher-to-student ratio per class. One student could mean the hiring of another teacher to keep ratios legal, he said.
Other choice and transfer statutes are unaffected by Dawson’s ruling. Those are legal transfers in which a student asks for a transfer — which must be approved by the releasing district and the receiving district — and a transfer into a district which a parent teaches.
Shain Bergan, Amye Buckley, Teresa Moss and Rose Ann Pearce contributed to this report.