School Choice Law Leaves Parents and Board Frustrated

Aug 12, 2013

Upset parents turned to the Arkansas Board of Education Monday to try to get school transfer requests that were denied overturned.

The newly enacted Public School Choice Act of 2013 allows for transfers unless a district annually claims exemption due to involvement in desegregation court cases. The previous school choice act, of 1989, was overturned by a 2012 court claiming racial demographic formulas, aimed at desegregating schools, were unconstitutional.

Several members of the Board are expressing concerns with the new law, saying it is difficult to interpret and apply. Board members told the parents at Monday's meeting that they wanted to grant the appeals, but they said the new law does not give them the power to do so, leaving their hands tied. 

Brenda Gullett, the chair of the Board of Education, says the Board doesn’t really even have the authority or access to evaluate districts claiming exemptions.  

She says she's spoken with the attorney for the Board of Education.

"We said, 'Is there any way to know in which district this [desegregation case] is legitimate, and how many total are there?' And he said possibly he could get that list for us, but districts aren't always forthcoming about that. Arkansas is so interesting in that we have such local control. The state does not have any sort of system of oversight like you would think," says Gullett.

Concerns over maintaining a racially integrated school system are at the center of the discussion over transfer laws. The fear is that more lenient transfer laws could lead to dramatic shifts in demographics. Gullett said a 3% cap on transfers is one mitigating force that is still in effect. She also said the legislature needs to come up with some clear standards to prevent school districts from segregating.

"When you're a parent, you're thinking about your child and your child's well being. It's very difficult to rise above that perspective and look at a much larger perspective to say, 'Well, what is this move going to do over here, and there, and whatever?' Obviously, the people that have oversight of our state must have formulas and decisions to do everything we can to mitigate against going back into a segregated school system," says Gullett.

Gullet says she wants the legislature to reassess how they determine the level of involvement and cooperation in desegregation cases to make sure schools are not becoming more segregated in the process and to focus on criteria like academic standing. She said ideally schools would all perform at satisfactory levels, negating much of the desire for transfers. 

Republican Representative Kim Hammer of Benton sponsored a bill last legislative session that allows students who transfer under the 2013 law to remain in their new school districts in the event the 2013 law is later repealed or found unconstitutional.  The law is up for review in 2015.