4 Arkansas districts appeal school-choice exemption denials

Posted: February 20, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: February 20, 2018 at 2:24 p.m.

Four districts that sought 2018-19 school year exemptions from participating in Public School Choice Act student transfers across district lines have been denied or partially denied by the Arkansas Department of Education.

The four districts -- Hope; Lafayette County, based in Lewisville; Junction City; and Camden Fairview -- are now appealing the denials to the state Board of Education, and those appeals will be heard at the board's March 8 meeting, said Jennifer Davis, an attorney for the department.

The school district appeal hearings are a first for the state because of changes in Arkansas law and are the latest development in the ongoing relaxation of school district boundary lines.

Every state except for Maryland has some degree of open enrollment/cross-district boundary school choice laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Arkansas, the law has changed several times, including in 2015 and 2017, allowing increased participation.

Of the four seeking appeals, Camden Fairview was granted a partial exemption, restricting only student transfers from Camden Fairview to the Harmony Grove School District in Ouachita County.

Leaders in the four districts and their attorneys contend that interdistrict student transfers will put their school systems in conflict with their federal court-ordered school desegregation obligations.

All four districts, which have had the exemptions in the past, are represented by the Allen P. Roberts law firm in Camden.

Roberts argued in requesting the exemptions that the state agency is assuming authority reserved for the federal courts.

"In school choice litigation, the [Arkansas Department of Education] has taken the position through the Attorney General that under the 2017 School Choice Act, the decision as to whether there is a conflict between a district's federal court desegregation order and that district's participation in school choice now rests with the ADE, rather than the issuing federal court," Roberts wrote to the Education Department.

"If indeed that is what the 2017 Act does, it is unconstitutional," he said.

Six school districts were successful in getting exemptions from the Public School Choice Act for the coming year. The Education Department granted exemptions to Cutter Morning Star, Lake Hamilton, Hot Springs, and Mountain Pine, all in Garland County; and to the El Dorado and Jacksonville/North Pulaski school districts.

The Arkansas law permits students to attend public schools in districts other than the one in which they reside -- as long as there is space available for the transfer student in the desired district.

As many as 13,656 of Arkansas' 477,268 public school students exercised school choice options in the 2016-17 school year, according to Arkansas Education Department data.

Districts are allowed to be exempted from the student transfer law if participation would put the district in conflict with federal court desegregation orders or a federal court-ordered desegregation plan.

But Arkansas Code Annotated 6-18-1906, as amended by Act 1066 of 2017, requires school districts that want an exemption to send to the Education Department by Jan. 1 of every year proof from a federal court that the district has a "genuine conflict" under an active desegregation order or plan "that explicitly limits the transfer of students between school districts."

Davis, the Education Department attorney, sent letters to each of the four districts that were denied exemptions, telling them the reasons for the denials based on the information they had turned in.

"Based on the documentation provided, it does not appear that the District is subject to any limitations explicitly limiting the interdistrict transfer of students," Davis wrote to the superintendents of the Hope and Lafayette County districts. "As such .... the Department has determined that sufficient proof has not been submitted to show that the district has a genuine conflict with the 2015 School Choice Act. Consequently," she wrote, the districts are "required to participate in provisions of the Public School Choice Act of 2015 for the 2018-19 school year."

In the letter to Junction City district Superintendent Robby Lowe, Davis said it didn't appear that the district was subject to limits regarding student transfers between districts, but it also seemed that the district had failed to provide a copy of a desegregation plan to which there had been a reference made.

Davis offered the district a deadline to submit that plan but also said that, as it stood, the district had provided insufficient proof and is required to allow student transfers across district lines.

Davis told Camden Fairview Superintendent Mark Keith that the district had provided sufficient proof of a genuine conflict between the state law and federal school desegregation requirements in regards to transfers to the Harmony Grove district, "But sufficient proof has not been submitted to show the District has a genuine conflict for all other districts." As a result, Davis wrote, the district must participate in School Choice Act transfers for all transfers except for those to Harmony Grove.

In the appeal letters and in an interview Monday, Roberts said that racial restrictions on interdistrict student transfers that existed in previous state law "eliminated the need to include express language restricting transfers to other districts in federal court settlements or consent decrees."

The racial restrictions have since been eliminated on transfers under state law.

While the desegregation plans tend to deal with student transfers within a district, the appeals to the state argue that allowing students to transfer across district lines will have a segregative effect on the districts and hinder their intradistrict desegregation plans.

The state has an obligation, the attorneys argued in the written appeals, to not approve or facilitate state policies that have the purpose or effect of creating, maintaining or increasing school districts or school attendance zones that are racially identifiable, the Roberts law firm attorneys argued.

In the case of Lafayette County, for example, the district has a 61 percent black enrollment and 39 percent white or other. The neighboring Spring Hill district is 1 percent black and 99 percent nonblack, and the nearby district of Emerson-Taylor-Bradley is about 16 percent black and 84 percent white or other. "Lafayette County School District's position is that any time demographic differences such as these exist, i.e. a substantially 'blacker' district bordered by a substantially 'whiter' district, the result of the 'blacker' district's participation in free and unrestricted school choice will be white flight," the district's attorneys wrote.

Missing from either the exempted or denied list is the 12,000-student Pulaski County Special School District, which has been on the exempted list through this current school year. District School Board members, however, voted to alter course to allow School Choice Act student transfers in and out of the district for the first time in 2018-19.

A Section on 02/20/2018