End consent decree for Camden Fairview School District, AG urges

Griffin: Give parents school-choice option

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin addresses the media Feb. 17 during a press conference in Little Rock.
(File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin addresses the media Feb. 17 during a press conference in Little Rock. (File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin said Friday that he has asked a federal judge to end a long-standing consent decree that prevents white students in the Camden Fairview School District from exercising school-choice options to the nearby Harmony Grove district.

The motion to terminate continued court supervision in the Camden Fairview school desegregation lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court, Western Division, in El Dorado. U.S. District Judge Susan O. Hickey is the presiding judge in the case.

"Arkansas has made great strides in expanding educational opportunities for our children," Griffin said in announcing the legal challenge. "Parents should be able to select the school that best meets their child's needs, and school choice should be available to all families across the state."

Camden Fairview students have been denied the ability to choose to attend school in a district other than the one in which they live "solely based on their race because of an unconstitutional agreement entered into by previous administrations," Griffin also said.

"I am asking the federal district court to end that government-sponsored, illegal racial discrimination. It's time to put education decisions in the hands of parents," he said.

Whitney Moore, an attorney for the Camden Fairview district, said Friday that she and her client school district are reviewing the attorney general's motion.

[DOCUMENT: Read Griffin's brief on school district » arkansasonline.com/318griffin/]

"We continue to believe that the prohibition on transfers between Camden Fairview and Harmony Grove is both constitutional and necessary for Camden Fairview to remediate the lingering effects of segregation," Moore said.

Arkansas laws on school choice have for several years permitted students living in nearly all of the state's public school districts to choose to attend schools in other districts -- with some conditions, such as the availability of space for the transfer student in the choice district.

The recently passed Arkansas LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' legislation to overhaul public education, includes provisions to further expand interdistrict school-choice options.

For a small number of school districts including Camden Fairview, decades-old federal desegregation cases have the effect of barring students from exercising the school-choice act transfers. That was done as a way to prevent the "white flight" of students out of a district.

"In the Camden Fairview School District, segregation thankfully ended two decades ago, the attorney general's staffers wrote in their argument to Hickey.

"Yet to preserve a particular racial balance, a prophylactic consent decree remains on the books, preventing white children (but not black children) from transferring to a neighboring district that better meets their needs. That decree interferes with the state's chosen policy of school choice," the state lawyers' argument continued.

"Even worse, it denies a group of schoolchildren educational opportunities solely because of their race. It is past time for this court-mandated racial discrimination to end."

The argument sent to Hickey this week has roots in an effort more than three decades ago by parent plaintiffs to consolidate the Camden, Fairview and Harmony Grove districts in Ouachita County.

That suit ended in a series of consent decrees, according to this week's motion. The Camden and Fairview districts consolidated and Harmony Grove agreed to not accept white transfer students from the new Camden Fairview without Camden Fairview's permission.

In 2002, Camden Fairview was declared unitary, or desegregated, and nearly all consent decrees were terminated, this week's motion said. But left in place was the prohibition on white student transfers to Harmony Grove. Harmony Grove was prohibited "from accepting as transfers the white children of its employees, though doing so was allowed by state law."

This week's motion to Hickey noted that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis in 2021 said Camden Fairview's old desegregation orders "raise red flags" and suggested steps be taken to end the case. However, the Camden Fairview district told the state in late 2022 that it had no plans to pursue terminating the case.

"Camden Fairview's desire to "prevent future 'white flight'" and preserve a particular racial balance cannot justify the consent decree's race-based transfer provision," the attorney general's office argued this week.

"Because there is no ongoing de jure segregation, the time to relinquish judicial control has come," the state's attorneys said.

"The time for judicial management of Camden Fairview has expired. This Court should return control over Camden Fairview to policymakers and parents," they wrote, also arguing that restrictions on student transfers is unconstitutional.

The motion and accompanying brief were submitted by Griffin; Nicholas Bronni, Arkansas solicitor general; Dylan Jacobs, deputy solicitor general; and Hannah Templin, assistant solicitor general.

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