University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

The Public School Choice Act in the 89th General Assembly

In The View from the OEP on April 8, 2013 at 8:02 am

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School choice has been on the mind of many a legislator, school administrator, and reporter at the Capitol this legislative session. One of the most strongly debated topics has been how to resolve the issues surrounding the Arkansas Public School Choice of 1989. 

The Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 allowed students to transfer to a district other than their residentially zoned district. However, there were race-based restrictions. Specifically, students could only transfer into districts where the student would be part of the minority racial group–with a few exceptions made for less diverse areas of the state. In the 2011 case, Teague v. Arkansas Board of Education, a group of parents from Malvern challenged the law, so that students could transfer despite the race barrier. In June 2012, the US District Court ruled that the law violates the 14th Amendment, and so the law was deemed unconstitutional. The decision was appealed. In January, the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis heard oral arguments of the case. The Federal Circuit Court has not yet ruled on the choice law.

The court issued a stay that allowed students who previously transferred under the law to remain in the transferred school district in the 2012-13 school year. In 2012-13, nearly 16,000 students in Arkansas have transferred districts.

As Senator Jason Rapert explains (in support of district choice), there is much to consider regarding the idea of district school choice: “Co-sponsors of the school choice bill want parents to have every opportunity to send their children to the best possible schools in their area, regardless of district boundaries. […] On the other hand, legislators don’t want to create a system that returns Arkansas to the days of segregated schools.”

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Senator Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home)

Last Wednesday (March 27), the Senate Education Committee passed Senate Bill 65 (filed by Senator Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home) with amendments to be added.  The bill was passed by the  Senate (34-0) .  The bill was heard by the House Education Committee and received a “Do Pass” on Friday.

SB65 would remove race as a factor in district choice. In the bill’s original state, it would allow any student in the state to transfer districts. However, the Senate Education Committee added amendments  to create regulations regarding choice. The following amendments will be added:

  • An expiration date that is effective in 2 years. This expiration date will allow the legislators to look at the data to determine if any changes should be made
  • Cap transfers to each district at 3%
  • Provide an exemption to districts on desegregation orders
  • Allow previously transferred students to remain in districts
  • Require the ADE to collect and report data
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Senator Joyce Elliot (D-Little Rock)

Senator Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) previously filed Senate Bill 114 regarding district choice. As we wrote earlier, SB114 would allow districts to opt out of school choice and would restrict choice for only educational purposes. However, Senator Elliott has now voiced support for  SB65 with the proposed amendments to SB65. Additionally, another choice bill filed by Representative Kim Hammer, HB 1507, (R-Benton), would use both socioeconomic status and district poverty level to determine whether a student could “choice” into a district. While there is certainly merit to Representative Hammer’s bill, there was some question about whether that bill resolved the legal issues raised in the current school choice bill.  House Bill 1507, was rejected by the House Education Committee.

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Representative Hammer (R-Benton)

Representative Hammer also proposed a second school choice bill, which passed in the House, but failed to pass on the Senate floor by one vote. This bill, HB 1294, would allow the 16,000 students who have “choiced” into non-residential schools under the old school choice law to remain in their current districts. The bill has a substantial amount of support from many in the educational establishment. The vote was expunged which allows it to be voted on again. It is on Monday’s agenda for the Senate to hear again. However, should Senator Key’s bill pass, this bill will no longer be necessary to consider.

Senator Key’s SB65 has made it through three of the five hurdles it must pass before becoming a law. The only two hurdles that remain are the vote on the House Floor and the Governor’s signature.

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