LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — As Arkansas legislators seek to rewrite the state's school choice law, they must weigh competing proposals over what types of restrictions, if any, ought to be placed on parents who want to transfer their children to a school outside of the district in which they live.
A federal judge last year struck down a 1989 statute as unconstitutional, ruling that Arkansas' Education Department couldn't use race as the only factor that determines whether a student is allowed to transfer. That law sought to prevent "white flight" by barring most transfers where a student wanted to switch into district where a higher percentage of students were of his or her race.
The case is pending before a federal appeals court. In the meantime, education advocates and lawmakers say Arkansas should develop a new law so the fate of transfers isn't left to the courts.
But three different suggestions on how to write the law are complicating the issue. Lawmakers could discuss the school choice proposals as early as next week, when the bills are slated to come before the education committees.
"We want to make it so parents can send their children to schools that fit their needs, not based on their ZIP code," said Laurie Lea, who leads A-Plus Arkansas, a group that advocates unfettered school choice. "We think that opening school choice broadly will help not only turn the tide of the education system but also bring parents options that create the competition among schools that will create better results."
The group backs a bill by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, that offers the least restrictive school choice option: Letting students transfer to another district as long as it doesn't conflict with any pending desegregation court order.
Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock, says that while it would be "optimal" for parents to have free rein over school choice, legislators need to balance that with the obligation to provide equitable education for all students. Under her proposal, individual school districts would be able to exempt themselves from the school choice program if they thought it would be harmful to their district.
"If they see that the implementation of choice is putting them in a position where they are going to segregate their schools, they have the right to appeal to the state Board of Education," she said. "But they have to make that appeal with rationale, with findings, with documentation to back up that's the case."
A third proposal would also place limits on transfers based on how it would affect the percentage of students in a district eligible for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said he chose the criteria because it affects a district's federal funding and would withstand constitutional scrutiny.
"This was the best of my ability to determine the approach that can withstand a constitutional challenge," he said.
The lawsuit that sparked last year's court decision was filed by a group of white parents who sought to transfer their children from Malvern, which is 60 percent white, to Magnet Cove, which is 95 percent white. They argued that they should be allowed to put their children in the schools of their choice without the limits placed on them by the race provision.
The debate over how best to change the school choice law is complicated by Arkansas' history of problems desegregating its schools that has long involved judicial intervention.
The state's largest school district, Little Rock, has argued that it wants to maintain the existing school choice law, including the racial provision, because it is an important tool for achieving desegregation.
Others are concerned about the logistical challenges that accompany loosening school choice restrictions, such as a mass exodus of students from a district.
"The issue is going to affect every district differently," Ron Harder, director of the advocacy team at the Arkansas School Boards Association, said." Larger districts inherently have more flexibility. If you're a smaller school district that's going to lose a bunch of students and teachers, it's going to have a bigger effect."
Another concern, Harder said, is who should pay for the cost of transporting a student to a school outside of his or her district.
"If you have wealthier students, who could afford a car, for instance, they could get to their receiving school, and it probably wouldn't be an issue," he said. "But for students who don't have those means, it could be unequal and that could leave schools open to litigation."