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Charters want to weigh in on desegregation case

by Evie Blad | September 17, 2011 at 4:46 a.m.

— A group of Pulaski County charter schools asked a federal judge Friday for permission to intervene in the decades-long Pulaski County school-desegregation lawsuit.

The schools’ attorneys want to weigh in on a May 2010 motion by attorneys for the Little Rock School District that challenged the state Board of Education’s approval of independently run, publicly financed charter schools in the county.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. has scheduled a hearing in March on how to proceed with the issue.

If the Little Rock district’s attorneys are successful in court, the operation of openenrollment charter schools in the county could be restricted. Additionally, the state could be held liable for additional desegregation payments under a 1989 settlement agreement in the case with the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts.

The charter schools’ attorneys said their motion should be granted because the Little Rock School District “has chosen to attack, amend, limit and prejudice the charters and rights of the Charter School Intervenors to operate openenrollment public charter schools pursuant to their contracts with the State Board,” the motion said.

The request was filed by a team of attorneys headed by Michael Wilson of Jacksonville and Jess Askew III. Wilson is a former legislator who has been involved with helping to establish a charter school system in Jacksonville. Askew is chairman of the eStem Public Charter Schools Inc. board.

The charter schools’ attorneys argued in their motion that the schools’ charter agreements are protected by state law, that provisions in the settlement agreement are unconstitutional and that the agreement should be terminated.

The charter schools, in their motion, argued that money, not racial equity, have driven the districts to continue litigation.

“This case has ceased to be about an effort to remedy civil rights violations and has become a dispute about money under the 1989 Settlement Agreement,” the schools’ motion said.

The Little Rock district claims the state approved the Pulaski County charter schools without regard to the effect the schools have on federal court-approved desegregation efforts in the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts.

The Little Rock district argues that charter schools in Pulaski County are attracting more-affluent, higher-achieving students, leaving the district with a greater concentration of high-need students and fewer resources to serve them.

Chris Heller, an attorney for the Little Rock district, said in an e-mail to Little Rock School Board members Friday that his “initial reaction is that the intervention is unnecessary because the State will adequately represent the positions the charter schools want to take.”

The Joshua intervenors, who represent black students in the desegregation case, have joined the Little Rock district in challenging the state’s approval of Pulaski County charter schools.

The Joshua intervenors contend that the state is not complying with its desegregation obligations outlined in the 1989 agreement, in which the state promised not to hinder desegregation in the districts and pledged money for their desegregation efforts.

The charter schools’ motion to intervene said the settlement’s racial provisions are no longer necessary because the three districts have been declared unitary, or desegregated, in their student assignment efforts.

The future of state desegregation payments will be the subject of a hearing at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis next week.

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller in May ordered an end to most of the nearly $70 million in annual desegregation payments the state makes to the three districts under the 1989 settlement agreement. That money is used for student transfers designed to balance enrollment from minority groups, magnet schools, teacher insurance and retirement payments, and general operating costs.

Miller later recused himself from the case, which is now assigned to Marshall.

The appeals court granted a stay of Miller’s ruling and will now consider appeals to determine if the funding should remain in place.

Charter schools seeking to intervene are Dreamland Academy; Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School; Arkansas Virtual Academy; Academics Plus Charter School; LISA Academy and LISA Academy-North Little Rock; Little Rock Preparatory Academy; Covenant Keepers College Preparatory Charter School; and e-Stem Elementary, Middle and High public charter schools.

Arkansas, Pages 12 on 09/17/2011

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