School choice bill would drop race as factor


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation filed Wednesday would remove race as a factor in deciding whether students can transfer between districts.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, introduced Senate Bill 65 on the same day that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis heard oral arguments in appeals of a federal judge’s ruling last year that struck down Arkansas’ school choice law.

U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson said in June that a raced-based provision in the 1989 Arkansas Public School Choice Act violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

“My proposal just takes the racial component that has been deemed unconstitutional … out and leaves what we call an open choice,” Key said.

His bill could go before the Senate Education Committee next week.

A provision of the School Choice Act prohibits transfers of students from their home district to another district where the percentage of their race is higher than in their home district.

Dawson ruled in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by a group of parents of white children attending the Malvern School District after they denied permission to transfer to the Magnet Cove School District. At the time, the Malvern district’s enrollment was about 60 percent white and the Magnet Cove district was about 95 percent white.

The state had argued that the race-based provision in the state statute was needed to preserve desegregation efforts.

In his ruling, Dawson said the race provision could not be severed from the entire act and enjoined the state from applying the law.

Dawson later issued a stay of his ruling so thousands of students attending schools outside their districts under the act could continue until the appeal could be heard was hired by the federal appeals court. Under the order, the racial restriction remained in place.

Both the plaintiffs and the state appealed Dawson’s ruling. The plaintiffs said the challenged only the racial provision and did not want the entire law overturned.

Jess Askew, lawyer for plaintiffs Ron and Kathy Teague and Rhonda Richardson described what could be called a spirited court session Wednesday.

“The court asked a lot of questions and were very active and interested in the arguments from all the parties,” Askew said.

He said he knew of the legislation Key filed Wednesday but had not studied it.

Aaron Sadler, spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said the office is “in the process of reviewing this particular bill, and we look forward to working with the Legislature on education issues this session.”