University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Public School Choice and Desegregation in Arkansas

In The View from the OEP on October 24, 2013 at 2:22 pm

This summer, the newly-implemented Public School Choice Act of 2013 generated a lot of attention when 24 families filed appeals of the denials of their school choice applications to the State Board of Education. All of the appeals were rejected, and 19 out of 24 were denied because the resident districts (the districts from which the students were trying to transfer) had declared a desegregation exemption. The points brought up about the law during the hearings piqued our interest, so we decided to look further into the issue. Our newest Arkansas Education Report, Public School Choice and Desegregation in Arkansas, is the result of that investigation. You can read the full report here. In addition, we have posted the executive summary below.

Executive Summary of Public School Choice and Desegregation in Arkansas:

In the 89th General Assembly, the Arkansas legislature passed The Public School Choice Act of 2013 (Act 1227 of 2013[1]). The law repealed the Public School Choice Act of 1989, which was declared unconstitutional in 2012 by a federal court in Teague v. Arkansas Board of Education. The 1989 law allowed students to transfer to a nonresident district based on race.[2] Following suit of similar cases in other states, the court struck down this law, stating that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Act 1227 allows students to switch districts regardless of race. However, the new law created certain restrictions on transfers. First, transfers cannot result in a net change in the district’s average daily membership of more than 3%. Furthermore, districts can limit transfers in if they would require additional teachers, staff, or classrooms. The last restriction, and the main focus of this report, is that districts that are under desegregation orders can declare themselves exempt from allowing students to transfer into or out of the district.

In the 2013-14 school year, twenty-three districts have declared exemptions based on desegregation orders. The purpose of the desegregation exemptions is to prevent the resegregation of schools. However, in doing so, it seems that the Act, however well-intentioned, has had the practical effect of denying school choice to students in districts that are typically among the lowest-performing in the state. Districts that are exempt from Act 1227 had a higher proportion of ethnic and racial minorities and students eligible for Free or Reduced Lunch (FRL) than non-exempt districts. In addition, exempt districts have lower student achievement and graduation rates, on average, than non-exempt districts.

A number of families in exempted districts have challenged their rejected applications for transfer by bringing suits to court and filing appeals to the State Board of Education. To date, 24 appeals of denials of school choice applications have been filed to the State Board of Education. Also, a group of parents in Blytheville are challenging the Blytheville School District’s desegregation exemption in a lawsuit. A decision in this case would likely have implications for the law as a whole.

Act 1227 expires July 1, 2015, so in two years, at a maximum, it will be up to the legislature to decide the future of school choice laws in Arkansas. In the meantime, we recommend that the Department of Education exercise meaningful oversight for which districts are granted exemptions based on desegregation exemptions, conduct a legal analysis of the cited desegregation exemptions, and provide study the impact of the law on different subgroups of students. In the future, we recommend that a law requires districts to admit students by lottery rather than on a “first-come, first serve” basis and consider the role of providing transportation to students in school choice.

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