University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Do YOU Have A Choice?

In The View from the OEP on September 9, 2015 at 11:03 am


Last week, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Blytheville School District’s decision to opt out of the state’s Public School Choice Act.  For a summary on the ruling, click here. The ruling means that students in Blytheville Public School were ineligible to request a transfer to another school district.

But wait, for over 25 years, students in Arkansas HAVE been able to request to transfer out of their residential district and into another district. Why are the ten parents involved in the Blytheville case, as well as all the parents recently appealing to the State Board of Education, having to face the reality that School Choice is not an option for their students? Why would students in some public school districts be allowed to transfer, but not students in others?  It all comes down to race, but maybe not in the way that you think.

In order to avoid negative consequences (think white flight) there are, and have always been, restrictions regarding which students can exercise choice. Under the original Public School Choice Act of 1989, students could request to transfer to a nonresident district as long as the student would be part of the minority racial group in their new district. Although the restriction was surely well-intentioned, in 2012 a federal court ruling stated race couldn’t be the only factor considered in deciding whether students could transfer between districts. In response, the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2013 (Act 1227) eliminated the racial restriction of the previous law, instead stating that school districts under desegregation orders could claim themselves exempt from allowing students to transfer in or out of their district. Twenty-three districts declared exemptions for 2013-14, and twenty-one declared exemptions for 2014-15.

On the surface, allowing districts with desegregation orders to not participate in School Choice may seem harmless. According to OEP’s report on School Choice, however, districts claiming exemption from allowing student transfers due to desegregation orders are higher poverty, higher minority, and lower performing than non-exempt districts. The exemptions, therefore, have the practical effect of denying students in exempt districts the choice to attend a higher performing school.

In response to concerns about the validity of the claimed exemptions, the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2015 (Act 560) amended the Public School Choice Act of 2013, and requires districts provide proof to the Arkansas Department of Education that they are under active desegregation orders or active court-approved desegregation plans. Eighteen school districts have submitted proof and claimed exemption.

We hoped requiring proof would deter districts from limiting student choice, but a new problem has arisen:

What if a school district submits “proof” that seems insufficient? Can the State Board call them out and allow students to exercise school choice?

Senator Alan Clark posed the question to the Attorney General, who responded essentially, “The ADE is neither authorized nor obligated” …  “to verify a school district’s claim of exemption or make a determination as to the sufficiency or truth of the proof submitted.” See the entire opinion here.

And so, at the August meeting, the State Board of Education did not evaluate the proof, but sustained the denial of transfer requests on appeal after appeal from parents and guardians trying to move their students out of districts claiming exemption.   Districts can submit whatever ‘proof’ they decide, and the students in that district will be denied the opportunity to transfer to a different district. You can read the full transcript here.  Apparently, the road ahead is through the courts.

As Chairperson Newton stated, “It’s outside of reasonable.”

If you are like us, you are wondering why a school district not ‘really’ under a desegregation order would claim an exemption?  Why would a school district want to be exempt from participating in school choice?

Perhaps the district is concerned about segregation. Some critics have voiced concerns that allowing School Choice will lead to resegregation. This is a serious issue that should be carefully considered using data. OEP’s research on the impact of School Choice finds no evidence of resegregative effects to districts due to school choice.

Maybe it’s about money. School district funding is allocated, in part, on the number of students enrolled in the district.  If a student transfers to a different school district, therefore, the money does too. Districts claiming exemption may be concerned about a significant decrease in funding if students start leaving the district. A provision in the law, however, limits the annual transfers due to school choice to 3% of the student enrollment. In addition, OEP’s research on the impact of School Choice finds districts losing students due to school choice are not consistently experiencing declines in enrollment.

Neither of these points resonate when it comes to students in classrooms.

Here at OEP, we are focused on the kids.

Our research shows that students attending districts claiming exemption are higher poverty, higher minority, and lower performing than students in non-exempt districts. By claiming exemption, these districts limit the opportunity for their students to transfer to a higher performing district. Surely the last thing we want is for our most at-risk students to be less likely to have an educational choice than their more advantaged peers.

We agree with Commissioner Key, who stated during consideration of an appeal earlier this month, “It kind of flies in the face of commonsense to think that a desegregation order is limiting to a minority family looking to move.”

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