El Dorado pupil transfers rejected

Judge cites 1971 desegregation order, overrules state board

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the El Dorado School District cannot participate in Arkansas School Choice Act student transfers because to do so would put the district in conflict with its 1971 federal school desegregation order.

U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey, in a three-page order, voided the Arkansas Board of Education's July decision that allowed a family living in the El Dorado School District to send children to schools this year in the neighboring Parkers Chapel School District. School started for those students Aug. 15.

The El Dorado School District "has a continuing constitutional obligation to avoid taking any action the nature and probable consequence of which would be a segregative impact" in the district, Hickey wrote.

"Participation in the 2015 School Choice Act would allow inter-district movement of students between [the El Dorado district] and the surrounding districts. If allowed, based on the demographics of EDSD and the surrounding districts, such movement would have a segregative impact in EDSD," she said.

The judge said the district's 45-year-old order is an enforceable order regarding the effects of past racial segregation in student assignments.

"As such, the order conflicts with participating in the 2015 School Choice Act, and EDSD appropriately declared its conflict with participating in the 2015 Act," Hickey wrote.

Allen Roberts, an attorney for the El Dorado School District, on Wednesday called the order "a good decision and what we expected." He also said that the El Dorado School District is "a great district."

Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who has been an advocate for school competition and interdistrict student transfers in different parts of the state, on Wednesday called Hickey's order "poorly reasoned" and "another example of federal over-reach, this time to deny parents' choice over their kids' education."

The judge noted that the El Dorado district had an enrollment last year of 4,522 students, 49.1 percent of whom are black and 50.9 percent are nonblack. The district is bordered by school districts -- Parkers Chapel and Smackover-Norphlet -- that have substantially white enrollments. The 787-student Parkers Chapel district is 90.6 percent nonblack and 9.4 percent black. Smackover-Norphlet district had an enrollment of 1,160, of which 19.5 percent were black students and 80.5 percent were labeled as nonblack students.

Hickey's decision is the third federal court decision in the past few weeks that affirmed that federal court desegregation orders and desegregation plans in particular districts prevent those districts from participating in School Choice Act transfers.

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. last month overturned the state Education Board's decision to allow a student who lived in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District to transfer to the Cabot School District. The Jacksonville/North Pulaski and the Pulaski County Special school district are parties in a 33-year-old desegregation case.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld a lower court decision prohibiting School Choice Act transfers among Garland County school districts that are parties in a school desegregation case.

Hickey issued an order in the El Dorado case one day after holding a court hearing on the matter.

The McAuliffe family of El Dorado had asked earlier this year that the family's children be able to attend Parkers Chapel schools, where they had attended previously under the education guardianship of a relative who taught in the system but had left.

The Parkers Chapel district had denied the transfer request on the basis that the El Dorado district had claimed an exemption to participating in School Choice Act transfers because it was operating under a federal desegregation order from 1971.

The School Choice Law that was passed by the state Legislature in 2013 and modified in 2015 allows students to transfer from the districts in which they live to schools in other districts if there is space for them. The law, however, includes a provision allowing a district to claim an exemption to participating in the student-transfer program if doing so would put the district in conflict with a federal court desegregation order.

The state Education Board approved the McAuliffe transfer and the transfer of the Jacksonville /North Pulaski student at the same meeting, an action that was contrary to the state board's votes on earlier, similar transfer requests.

The El Dorado district's attorneys, Roberts and Whitney Moore of Little Rock, had asked Hickey to issue a declaratory judgment to stop the transfer of the McAuliffe family's children, citing a conflict with the directive in the 45-year-old federal court order.

"The order entered by this Court on August 2, 1971 ... specifically states: All vestiges of 'freedom of choice' is eliminated and any further use is prohibited," the attorneys said in the earlier motion, also citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found that freedom-of-choice plans are inadequate to convert a dual school system to a unitary, nondiscriminatory school system.

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, who represents black plaintiff families in the El Dorado case, supported the position of the El Dorado district on the transfers.

The state Education Department and the state Board of Education are not parties in the desegregation case and did not participate in the hearing Tuesday. An attorney for the McAuliffe family submitted a "friend of the court" letter to the judge, which she said was among the materials and testimony that she considered in her decision.

"[The El Dorado School District] has been and is subject to this Court's supervision regarding an enforceable desegregation court order," Hickey wrote.

"EDSD has never participated in a school choice program that allowed segregative inter-district movement of students," she also said.

"The testimony of former EDSD Superintendent Robert Watson, current EDSD Superintendent Jim Tucker, and former Camden Fairview Superintendent and current Pulaski County Special Superintendent Dr. Jerry Guess was that inter-district movement of students, such as that permitted by the 2015 Act, would have a segregative impact on EDSD."

The judge concluded by saying that the federal court maintains "continuing jurisdiction over this matter until it finds that EDSD should be released from Court supervision."

Metro on 09/01/2016