Four South Arkansas school districts challenging a U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling barring the districts from exemption from the Arkansas School Choice Act will not have their case heard by the full court in an en banc hearing, the court ruled Monday.
The Hope, Camden Fairview, Lafayette County and Junction City school districts had filed four separate but similar lawsuits against state officials arguing that Arkansas School Choice Act student transfers would result in white flight from their districts and hinder the districts in complying with their previously issued federal school desegregation consent decrees and orders.
U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey in January 2019 agreed and modified the districts' old court orders and consent decrees to bar School Choice Act interdistrict student transfers. In December 2020, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court upheld Hickey's decisions to modify the plans.
Then, in response to requests from attorneys for the state and for the U.S. Department of Justice, the 8th Circuit court in March granted a petition for a rehearing and vacated its previous opinion and judgment.
On Aug. 25, the panel of three judges -- with a dissent from one judge -- concluded that the old consent decrees dealt with racial discrimination within each school district, such as operating dual systems for Black and white students or bus routes, or assigning students to gifted education or special education in a discriminatory manner.
On Oct. 12, the Camden-Fairview and Hope school districts filed a petition asking the full 8th Circuit to hear the case. On Monday, the court denied the request for an en banc hearing with a one-sentence ruling.
Whitney Moore of Camden, an attorney for the school districts, expressed disappointment with the decision and said that the court's ruling will result in more racial segregation "of the already segregated public schools of South Arkansas."
"The court's decision fails both Black and non-Black students who are constitutionally entitled to attend desegregated schools," Moore said. "The decision also rewards the legislative maneuvering that made it nearly impossible for districts with federal court desegregation orders to obtain an exemption from school choice, no matter the segregative effects of choice transfers."