University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

We Saw This One Coming…

In The View from the OEP on June 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm

BREAKING NEWS … In a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson said the state’s Public School Choice Act of 1989 is unconstitutional.

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette first reported today that Judge Dawson ruled that a race-based provision in the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As the old saying goes: “We hate to say we told you so,” but we saw this one coming. In fact, we discussed this very situation and gave our view that the law would likely be struck down if challenged in a 2008 OEP policy brief analysis of similar court cases involving school districts in Seattle, WA and Louisville, KY which followed up a 2007 OEP policy brief on the same court ruling.

Have a look at our policy briefs linked above –  which not only include a nice summary of the two existing choice laws in Arkansas, but also provide some recommendations on how we might amend the current law. Then compare that with the court’s opinion and order from the court case.

This ruling leads to a conundrum as the judge highlighs on page 18 of his opinion that:

“The Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 follows swiftly on the heels of decisions in both the Eastern District of Arkansas and the Eighth Circuit which held that a student transfer law that does not control for potential segregative effects is unconstitutional.”

In short, the judge is saying that it is both unconstitutional to disregard race and also unconstitutional to broadly account for race. As a result, the legislature may have to develop a narrowly tailored policy on race and transfers with respect to public school choice. In the shorter term, an  immediate question that Arkansas policymakers face might need to address is:  What happens to the as many as 15,000 students who enrolled in receiving districts during the 2010-11 school year whose transfer status is now unknown under Judge Dawson’s ruling?

We say “as many as” because we do not know if ALL 15,000 transferred under the Public School Choice Act of 1989. Regardless, there could be a large number of students in educational limbo depending on how this plays out.

The DemGaz promises to have an updated story in Saturday’s edition of the paper, so we hope that you, like us, will be following along.  In fact, other national news outlets are already covering this story. Check out pieces by the Washington Post, Star Tribune, and NPR.

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