Arkansas' attorney general is seeking to remove four school districts from federal desegregation supervision, arguing that the conditions that required such supervision no longer exist and that the districts are simply using federal oversight to avoid complying with state law.
Attorney General Tim Griffin filed four briefs recently in the state's motion to intervene in desegregation lawsuits which have the school districts of Camden-Fairview, El Dorado, Hope, and Lafayette County currently under federal supervision, allowing those districts to opt out of the state's school choice law that was passed in 2013. According to Griffin, race-based consent decrees were put into place to enforce segregation under the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that swept away the "separate but equal" doctrine enshrined in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.
Calling the decades-old consent decrees "outdated" and saying they deprive parents of schoolchildren of important constitutional rights, Griffin said in a press release that relying on those decrees allows the school districts to avoid competition and to keep funding for students who would otherwise leave the districts for higher performing schools.
"School choice is the law today in Arkansas," Griffin said in the press release. "Unconstitutional, race-based consent decrees from decades past are denying equal rights to parents to select the school that best meets the needs of their children. I have filed motions to terminate federal consent decrees in [these] school districts so that students there can realize the educational opportunities available to their peers across the rest of the state."
According to the press release, Griffin said that Hope and Lafayette County school districts are currently subject to consent decrees entered into during the 1980s to resolve desegregation litigation and that although allegations of segregation were resolved long ago, the school districts have used the still-existing decrees as a basis to opt out of Arkansas's school choice law beginning in 2013.
The El Dorado School District, Griffin said, was desegregated by court order in litigation that was resolved in the early 1970s. Despite no allegations of unconstitutional behavior appearing in the decades since, Griffin said, the court's order has been used as a basis to exempt the district from school choice.
According to an earlier press release, Griffin filed a similar motion in mid-March regarding the Camden Fairview School District, which he said entered into a consent decree that consolidated the Camden and Fairview school districts and an agreement by Harmony Grove not to accept transfers by white students without the new Camden Fairview district's permission. That consent decree came about more than 30 years ago after parents in Ouachita County brought an action to consolidate the Camden, Fairview and Harmony Grove school districts.
"Arkansas has made great strides in expanding educational opportunities for our children," Griffin said in the earlier press release. "Parents should be able to select the school that best meets their child's needs, and school choice should be available to all families across the state. But for decades, students in Camden have been denied that opportunity solely based on their race because of an unconstitutional agreement entered into by previous administrations."
Whitney Moore, an attorney for the four school districts, took issue Tuesday with Griffin's contention that the consent decrees entered into by the school districts to address historic discrimination in Arkansas schools as unconstitutional and that couching the issues purely in terms of school choice is misleading.
"This isn't about racial balance, per se," Moore said, of the consent decrees worked out between the school districts and the federal court. "This is about remedying the effects of past de jure segregation and, as a remedy, race-based measures are constitutional."
Moore said the position of the four districts is that although racially discriminatory practices on the part of the districts themselves ended years ago, there are other issues at play, including the potential for Arkansas' school choice law to open districts up to the problem of white parents fleeing the districts and taking state funding with them.
"The consent decrees involved a lot more than just student transfers," she said. "Through the years, all of these districts have taken the position that they are non-discriminatory in their operations but the white flight issue persists and therefore, participating in school choice has a segregative impact."
Moore said two of the school districts she represents -- Hope and Lafayette County -- have not ruled out the possibility of pursuing unitary status and, she said, both have participated in school choice for at least two years.
"They were leaning toward doing it but now the state has gotten involved and is trying to advance the motion on its own timeline and that's going to be something the districts are looking into," she said. "My opinion is that the state's involvement muddies the waters."
Moore said both districts have communicated to the state the intent to pursue unitary status but she said that to date, no court filings have been placed to reflect that intent.
"There's been no timeline given so I don't want to be misleading and say they just beat us to the courthouse by a week or anything like that," she said, "but I think there may be some point in a unitary status filing at which Hope and Lafayette County are in agreement with the state."
Because of that, Moore said, she doesn't expect litigation between the Hope and Lafayette County school districts to be too combative as both appear to be moving toward similar goals as the state. But, she said, the issue regarding the El Dorado and Camden Fairview school districts could be a bit messier.
"Their positions are that they have federal court desegregation orders that conflict with participation in school choice and the school choice law recognizes if those conflicts exist, an exemption will be granted and those districts won't have to participate," she said.
"The Department of Education has granted those exemptions for several years now and the AG's office is trying to go a different way and terminate those orders, which the districts believe will be segregative and not in keeping with the spirit of the consent decrees and that the age of those consent decrees doesn't matter as long as the constitutional harm persists."