School choice bill would make desegregation goal, not mandate


LITTLE ROCK — Racial desegregation would remain a legislative goal, though not a mandate, in legislation filed Wednesday to replace a state law that placed racial restrictions on where students could attend school.

Other bills filed Wednesday would create a grant program for open-enrollment charter schools and allow financial institutions to create savings accounts that would be linked to the state lottery.

A federal judge struck down the Arkansas School Choice Act last year after a group of parents challenged the anti-segregation provision.

Senate Bill 114 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would rewrite the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 with a set of guidelines for school districts and school boards to use when considering a student’s request to transfer between districts.

Under Elliott’s bill, a school district could seek an exemption from the school choice law if officials believed transfers could lead to segregation.

Last week, Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, filed SB 65, which would remove race as a factor in deciding whether students can transfer between districts.

Key’s proposal was filed on the same day that the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis heard oral arguments in appeals of last year’s ruling 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 law violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Key, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday he hopes to present his bill in the committee in early February.

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.

Also filed Wednesday, SB 117 by Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, would create a grant program for open-enrollment charter schools.

Under the bill, the state Division of Arkansas Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation would administer a program to which open-enrollment charter schools could apply for state-funded grants. The schools could use the grants to build, renovate and maintain facilities; acquire property; buy supplies; and pay off debts.

The grant program would be open only to charter schools that have been in existence for at least five years, provide transportation to their students, have a student body with at least 60 percent of students on the National School Lunch Program, and are considered academically successful by the state Department of Education.

SB 119 by Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, would allow financial institutions to create savings accounts that would be linked to the state lottery.

Under the bill, a customer who deposits a certain amount — not less than $25 — into a prize-linked savings account would be entered in a lottery game and become eligible to win prizes. The state lottery would create the game specifically for the financial institutions.

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Reporter John Lyon contributed to this report.