School Choice Should Be Available to All
Arkansas students are back to school, ready to tackle a new year. As part of a comprehensive education, I believe parents should have the right to choose the school that's best suited for their child, regardless of their ZIP code.
Any discrimination based on race, color or national origin that would prevent this choice has no place in our state. Yet for some of our schools -- 11 districts, to be exact -- students don't enjoy equal access to school choice. How is it that children across the state are often denied the opportunity to transfer to a school of their choice for no reason other than race? This is unacceptable, and we must put a stop to it.
All 11 school districts in play (Camden-Fairview, El Dorado, Hope, Junction City, LaFayette, Cutter Morning Star, Fountain Lake, Hot Springs, Jessieville, Lake Hamilton, Lakeside and Mountain Pine) have been involved in some form of desegregation litigation for decades. On Aug. 18, 1989, a case filed in federal court alleged that Garland County maintained a racially segregated public school system in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The districts entered into the Garland County School Desegregation Case Settlement Agreement, and the federal court approved it on April 20, 1992. The agreement remains effective today, nearly 30 years after its approval. Unfortunately, the settlement has some strange twists that have resulted in children who were still unborn at the time of its approval suffering from an unconstitutional mandate.
At the time of the settlement, the districts avoided a lengthy lawsuit by agreeing to comply with State Act 609 of 1989. This act was a public school choice program that allowed students to transfer to other districts, but included the limitation that "no student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student's race exceeds that percentage in his resident district." In other words, if a Black student in a 30 percent Black/70 percent white school district wanted to transfer to a 40 percent Black/60 percent white school district, he would be denied. It's blatant racial discrimination. A federal court later found this archaic limitation unconstitutional and required the state of Arkansas to remove race as the governing factor in its school choice law. The state Legislature complied and changed school choice law; however, the Garland County school districts went back to court and asked to remain under the 1989 act. The court granted their request.
Now, the Garland County schools want out of the requirements of the unconstitutional 1989 act but are being denied. In fact, they must file exemptions every year to disallow school choice. It is ridiculous that in 2020, a lawsuit settlement requiring schools to impose an unconstitutional law is still determining children's education options.
Lest you think this isn't an issue in practice, it is. In 2014, three Black students lost their chance to transfer to Mountain Pine from Lake Hamilton when the State Board of Education denied their appeal. The board based its decision solely on the fact that a few more Black children, based on the percentage of the student population, attended classes at Mountain Pine. More recently, Jessieville was unfairly blamed for having to deny the transfers of white students from Fountain Lake. Parents are understandably outraged. How can anyone explain to a Black child that they cannot transfer to Mountain Pine or a white child that they cannot transfer to Jessieville simply because of their race and that they are a student in Garland County? Denying someone the ability to select a school that best fits their needs for any reason, especially race, is unconstitutional and has no place in Arkansas.
So what's the solution to end this blatant discrimination? All involved parties must agree that it is time to end the mandatory compliance with an unconstitutional act that has long ceased to be the law in Arkansas. Some of the cases in south Arkansas are before the 8th Circuit of Appeals, but as of yet, they have been slow to rule. This shouldn't even be a question. Instead of spending resources on appeals and exemptions, we should do what we should've done all along: give every Arkansas child the opportunity to attend the school of their choice. Anything less is unconstitutional and unacceptable.