2013 proved to be an eventful year for school choice in Arkansas, with fundamental changes made to both types of school choice available to Arkansas families: public school choice and public charter schools. In the 2013 legislative session, the General Assembly passed Act 1227, the Public School Choice Act of 2013, and Act 509, which established a Charter School Authorizing Board, made up of members appointed from the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) staff, as the state’s primary charter school authorizer.
Public School Choice
In 2012, the School Choice Act of 1989 was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge for its race-based provision (in previous months, we have written HERE and HERE and HERE about the Supreme Court rulings on racial provisions in public school choice laws in Louisville and Seattle and the progression of the case in the Natural State. Due to concerns that public school choice might be used to undermine racial integration, the law only allowed a student to transfer if the student was transferring to a district that had a lower percentage of the students’ race than the student’s resident district.
During the 2013 legislative session, two school choice bills were introduced to replace the 1989 law, and the final outcome was Act 1227, a compromise bill. Act 1227 did away with the race-based provision of the 1989 law but added a number of other restrictions to guard against further racial imbalance:
- 3% cap: transfers cannot result in a net change in the district’s average daily membership of more than 3%
- Capacity: districts can limit transfers in if they would require additional teachers, staff, or classrooms
- Desegregation: districts that are under desegregation orders can declare themselves exempt from allowing students to transfer into or out of the district
The controversy was not over with the passage of the law. Shortly after the law was passed, 23 districts declared exemptions from the law based on past desegregation orders, preventing students from transferring out of or into those districts. In the summer of 2013, 24 families filed appeals of the denials of their school choice applications to the State Board of Education. The points brought up about the law during the hearings, particularly the desegregation exemption, piqued our interest, so we decided to look further into the issue and published a report, Public School Choice and Desegregation. To learn more, you can also read the executive summary of the report on our blog.
Charter Authorizing Panel
Motivated by the fact that charter hearings were monopolizing a great deal of the State Board of Education’s time, legislators debated and eventually passed Act 509, which gave the authority to authorize charter schools from the State Board of Education (SBE) to a new Charter Authorizing Panel composed of members from the ADE appointed by the Commissioner of Education. Under the new law, the SBE would only play a role in charter authorization if a party appeals the charter authorizing panel’s decision and the SBE agrees to hear it. For an overview of charter authorization in Arkansas and other states, see the OEP’s Charter Authorizers policy brief and blog post.
The members of the Charter Authorizing Panel were announced in August, and the panel held its first meeting to consider charter proposals on November 13th and 14th. The panel heard seven proposed open-enrollment charters: two charters were approved, three were denied, and two were tabled. The panel met again on November 21st to continue their hearing for the two tabled Young Adult Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy charter schools, which the panel ultimately rejected.
The saga continued when the State Board of Education heard appeals of the Charter Authorizing Panel’s decisions for 4 charter schools on December 16th. The SBE agreed to review the decision made by the Charter Authorizing Panel for two charter schools during its January meeting: Quest Middle School in Little Rock, which was initially approved, and Redfield Tri-County Charter School, which was initially denied.
It takes time to adjust and create procedures for new systems, and the new school choice laws are no exception. We expect that answers to questions that have come up in this first year of implementation, such as “What is the criteria for a valid desegregation exemption?” and “When should the State Board of Education re-hear a decision made by the Charter Authorizing Panel?”, will become clearer as we gain more experience with the new laws.