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The state Department of Education told four south Arkansas school systems Wednesday that they are exempted from participating in interdistrict student transfers in the 2019-20 school year in light of an ongoing federal appeals court case.

Hope, Junction City, Lafayette County and Cameden Fairview school districts received letters from the agency granting their requested exemptions from participating in School Choice Act student transfers.

That reverses, at least temporarily, the agency's earlier position that the four districts were obligated to participate by allowing their students who desired to transfer to seek enrollment in schools and districts in which they do not reside.

The School Choice Act of 2015 requires that school districts allow students to cross district lines to attend schools with some conditions. The receiving schools, for example, must have room for the transfer students and the transfers do not cause the districts to violate federal court-imposed desegregation obligations.

The four districts -- all represented by attorneys Allen P. Roberts and Whitney Moore -- have argued for more than a year that their participation in the state's School Choice Act of 2015 would result in racial segregation of students and put the districts in conflict with their longstanding federal court-ordered school desegregation plans.

State officials argued that the districts' desegregation plans and orders did not address the subject of interdistrict student transfers.

"The Department previously determined that the District failed to provide documentation showing that its participation in school choice under the Act would conflict with any federal court order or desegregation plan," Lori Freno, general counsel for the Education Department, wrote to each system Wednesday.

"The department thus concluded that the [districts were] required to participate in school choice under the Act for the 2019-20 school year," she said.

But Freno also noted that U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey on Jan. 17 entered an order that modified the districts' desegregation orders to explicitly prohibit the segregative interdistrict transfers of students -- unless a transfer is requested for education or compassionate purposes and is approved by the affected district's school board on a student-by-student basis.

In her January order Hickey defined a "segregative" transfer as one in which the percentage of enrollment for the transferring student's race exceeds that percentage in the student's resident district, Freno noted to the districts.

The newly approved state exemption from participating in transfers will apply to all students in the four districts even if the race of a student desiring a transfer would help racial desegregation.

"Normally, the Department would be inclined to limit any school choice exemption only to the extent the court order requires, thereby enabling school choice to the greatest extent possible," Freno wrote, but added that the "Department is not willing to allow a student's race to in any way be a factor, however, in whether that student may or may not exercise choice under the law."

The Arkansas attorney general's office, representing the Education Department and state Board of Education, has appealed Hickey's orders to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis.

The appeals court most recently denied the state's request that student transfers from the four districts be allowed to proceed for the 2019-20 school year while the court appeal is in process.

The state's written arguments in the appeal are due to the 8th Circuit on May 3, after which the districts will submit their arguments and, presumably, a court hearing will be scheduled.

Moore, one of the attorneys for the districts, said Wednesday that the districts are pleased with the Education Department's action on the exemptions from participating in school choice.

"The districts believe Judge Hickey's order will be upheld on appeal," Moore said in an emailed statement. "In the meantime, the districts will continue to work to meet their desegregation obligations and comply with the court's orders."

Nearly all Arkansas school districts participate in interdistrict student transfers. In addition to the four that just received exemptions, others that are exempt are El Dorado and districts in Garland County.

Gary Newton, executive director of Arkansas Learns, an organization that advocates for parents' ability to choose schools for their children, was critical in Twitter and Facebook posts of the four districts for denying school-choice transfers. Newton also noted that changes in state law earlier this year enable students who attend schools with F grades from the state or schools categorized as Level 5 -- in need of intensive support -- to seek Opportunity Choice Transfers. Denial of those transfers can be appealed to the State Board of Education.

Newton suggested that the state Education Board could be willing to grant appeals from parents in one or more of the exempted districts on the basis of the provision in Hickey's order that would permit case-by-case transfers for education or compassionate reasons. He said a student's assignment to a F-graded school or a school in need of support might be considered the basis for a compassionate or education transfer.

"We are just wanting those citizens to get what most other Arkansan gets to enjoy," Newton said.

Metro on 04/18/2019

Print Headline: 4 Arkansas school districts exempted from pupil transfers


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