HOT SPRINGS A state law that allows parents to move their children to schools outside of their home districts unconstitutionally restricts some of those transfers based on the children’s race, attorneys for a group of parents argued in federal court Monday.
The parents want to transfer their children, who are white, from the Malvern School District, which is about 60 percent white,to the Magnet Cove School District, which is about 95 percent white.
The Magnet Cove district denied previous attempts by the parents - Ron Teague, Kathy Teague and Rhonda Richardson - to transfer their children under a race clause in the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989.
“Race discrimination is inherently evil,” said attorney Jess Askew, arguing for the parents. “Telling children where they may or may not attend school based on the color of their skin is inherently evil.”
The lawsuit - believed to be the first constitutional challenge to the state’s choice law - came after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said school assignments based solely on race were unconstitutional, with few exceptions.
Defendants in the case are the Arkansas Board of Education, its individual members and the Magnet Cove School District.
Arkansas Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson told U.S. District Judge Barry Bryant on Monday that the race clause in the School Choice Act is necessary to honor federal court obligations in previous desegregation cases, such as the Pulaski County schools case that involves three of the state’s largest districts.
There are other school transfer laws the plaintiffs could use in an attempt to move their children to a different district, Richardson said. They include a method in which the parents present their individual circumstances to the two districts to request a legal transfer.
“These transfer laws don’t exist in isolation,” he said.
The law the parents attempted to use to transfer their students is Arkansas Code Annotated 6-18-206, which allows a student “to apply for admission to a school in any district beyond the one in which the student resides, provided that the transfer by this student would not adversely affect the desegregation of either district.”
It adds the restriction - applied in the plaintiffs’ transfer attempts - that “no student may transfer to a nonresident district where the percentage of enrollment for the student’s race exceeds that percentage in the student’s resident district.”
Askew has asked for an injunction, under which the court would strike out that portion of the law as a violation of the plaintiffs’ civil rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S.
Parents have a variety of reasons for wanting to transfer their children, including extracurricular opportunities, class size and academic achievement, and race should not be a limiting factor in that decision, Askew said.
Richardson said the law should stand.
“A right is something someone is automatically entitled to,” he said. “Nobody is automatically entitled to a transfer in Arkansas.”
In 1982, the Little Rock School District sued the state and the Pulaski County Special and North Little Rock school districts, claiming that they took actions that resulted in racial segregation of students among the three Pulaski County school districts.
In that case, U.S. District Judge Henry Woods’ “principal finding” was that “the State did not engage in its affirmative obligation to assist the Pulaski County districts in their desegregation efforts,” Richardson wrote in his filings in the case.
The state must take an active role to prevent segregation that could grow if parents could freely move from districts without conditions, he said Monday.
Superintendents of the El Dorado and Camden Fairview school districts testified in depositions that had the race clause not been added, the 1989 school choice law would have resulted in “total and near instantaneous resegregation in every school in Arkansas that had a near total black population,” said their attorney, Allen Roberts.
Taking out the race restriction in 2012 would yield “exactly the same result in nearly as rapid a period of time,” he said.
If the court finds the race clause unconstitutional, it should strike down the entire School Choice Act, Roberts said.
The plaintiffs, joined by a larger group of parents, filed a similar lawsuit Oct. 21, 2008, listing the state Education Board, the Malvern School District, its superintendent and its School Board as defendants.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson dismissed that original suit, saying the plaintiffs had sued the wrong parties.