Four districts denies exemption from school choice

By submitted, 08/2/21 8:05 AM

LITTLE ROCK – A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the state Education Department, and against four south Arkansas school districts that want to be exempt from the state school choice law.

The Hope, Camden-Fairview, Junction City and Lafayette County School Districts had argued in court that if they had to comply with the Arkansas School Choice Act of 2017, white flight would create a new era of segregation in their classrooms.

The 2017 act was the most recent of several school choice laws that the legislature has enacted over the past 30 years. Before 2017, the four districts had been allowed to exempt themselves from state school choice laws. That’s because previous state laws allowed exemptions for schools under federal court orders to desegregate.

The four districts went to court because the 2017 school choice law denied them the ability to exempt themselves, as they had been able to do previously.

Last week a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the four districts and in favor of the state. The state attorney general defended the state Education Department and the 2017 school choice act.

If discrimination still exists within the four school districts it cannot be directly traced to the Arkansas school choice law, the federal judges wrote. Even though the four districts are under federal court order to desegregate, those orders have been in place for many years and are “dormant,” they said.

A lower court abused its discretion when it originally decided in favor of the four districts and blocked student transfers, the federal appellate judges said.

“We also note that we have concerns about these desegregation orders continuing in place. The orders have been in place for decades,” the judges on the Eighth Circuit wrote in their majority opinion. “Such entrenched federal oversight should have raised red flags long ago… It is unclear on this record if there is any reason for the continued federal oversight.”

The four districts were sued decades ago for racial discrimination against African-American students and staff.

Since those initial lawsuits were decided, the four districts have been operating under federal court orders to desegregate.

However, the panel of judges on the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court called those old court orders “dormant” and said “it may be wise” for a lower court to consider removing the schools from federal jurisdiction.

On the other hand, a dissenting judge said that evidence presented by the four districts clearly demonstrates the problems caused by white flight.

The evidence indicates that a large majority of the student transfer requests came from white families. For example, one year Hope schools received 70 requests for transfers out of the district, and 68 were from white families.

The Lafayette County district lost 30 white students one year when it was not exempt from the school choice law.

A former superintendent of Camden-Fairview testified that the district was able to desegregate schools because of its exemption from the school choice law.

In a prepared statement, the state attorney general said that the Eighth Circuit ruling was a win for parents affirming their right to choose schools that best suit the needs of their children.