No school choice: What will school districts do? Superintendents ponder the current dilemma
Arkansas school officials are up in arms. For years the school districts have been trading students back and forth through the Arkansas School Choice Act and that plan already was in the works for another school term.
A few days ago, a federal judge determined, however, that the act is illegal and has issued a ruling saying school districts must cease and desist in regard to this practice.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled that the provision of the law dealing with race violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since, he said, it couldn't be separated form the rest, he declared the entire act unconstitutional.
In his ruling, Dawson wrote: "The state must employ a more nuanced, individualized evaluation of school and student needs, which, while they may include race as one component, may not base enrollment or transfer options solely on race."
The state had argued the the provision in the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 was needed to preserve desegregation efforts.
Dawson's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a group of parents who argued that they should be given the option of putting their children in the school district of their choice without the limits placed on them by the race provision.
Andi Davis, a lawyer for the Malvern parents, said initially that she was pleased by the decision, but had hoped the judge would strike down only the portion about race rather than the whole law.
After a cursory reading of the judge's decision, Davis reportedly remarked, "The school choice is gone."
Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell reportedly has asked his staff to review how the ruling will affect students, parents and districts.
He said the education department staff will work with the state attorney general's office to determine what legal steps, if any, the department will take.
According to Kimbrell, the statute struck down by Dawson is "one of a few statutes in Arkansas that allows students to attend school at a school district other than the school district in which the student resides."
Superintendents of the four school districts in Saline County, as well as one outlying district, were asked for their thoughts on the issue. Their comments follow.
Benton school officials are joining school district officials throughout the state as all face a dilemma about school choice.
School choice is the system that's been used in Arkansas public school districts since the late 1980s, noted Dan Jordan, acting superintendent. "Where does it go from here now that a federal judge has said 'no more'?
"The truth of the matter appears to be that at this juncture, no one knows what the federal judge's decision really means, Jordan pointed out.
"Right now in the Benton district, we have 368 students enrolled through school choice and more have applied to attend for the coming year through that law," he said.
Those 368 students were part of a total enrollment of 4,587 at the close of the 2011-12 school term.
"The deadline to enroll through school choice is July 1, and we've got to have some kind of directive telling us what we're supposed to do," he said.
"I told the board and our administrators that the judge has ruled public school choice to be illegal, so we're just waiting now to hear from the state Education Department.
"We don't know what they intend for us to do," he said.
"With that July 1 deadline looming, we're hoping we hear something within the week as to our directive," Jordan said.
"We don't know if this is immediate," he said. "And what about those previously accepted — do they get to stay put? Will there be an appeal?
"Right now, we have more questions than we have answers until we get some word out of the state department," he said.
"This could be huge to some districts and not as big for others," Jordan said.
"When we hear the final rules and regulations of the thing, we'll know then what it will mean to us," he said.
"We were a little surprised by the judge's ruling," Jordan said. "The original lawsuit was filed due to the racial limitations, but the judge didn't just strike that part — he struck the whole law."
Jordan also questioned whether there will be a transition period if the judge's ruling truly means that school- choice enrollments have ceased.
"We keep asking, are we really going to stop? Sever the line and send all students back who are living in another district?
"We can see the results of the litigation. It's not just us; every district in the state will be affected.
"In the meantime, we're still collecting the applications for those wanting to enroll through school choice," Jordan said. " We're going to be have to be given directions as to what it really means, so we know what we have to do."
The Bryant School District, parents and students — like employees and patrons of all Arkansas public schools — also find themselves in a registration dilemma, following Judge Dawson's ruling that the Arkansas School Choice law is unconstitutional.
As of Oct. 1, 2011, the Bryant District student population stood at 8,292, according to Communications Director Jessica Bollen.
"There were 140 students who transferred to the district in the 2011-2012 school year because of school choice," Bollen said. "So far, there are 154 applicants for next year."
Bollen said 159 students were approved transfers out of the district.
Dawson's decision will have an impact on all school districts in the county for various reasons — whether it be funding, perceived quality of education or simply personal preference.
The lawsuit was filed by white, Malvern parents whose child was denied transfer out of the Malvern School District to attend the Magnet Cove District because they did not meet the race provision outlined in the School Choice Law.
The family is appealing Dawson's ruling, maintaining its scope is too broad — that only the clause regarding race should be eliminated as opposed to the entire law.
Still other questions have arisen, such as whether students who are currently enrolled in a district through school choice should be granted permission to remain in the district and only new applicants be denied.
"If this judge's ruling stands, this will affect the district," said Don McGohan, assistant superintendent for human resources. "When you consider our numbers, it won't have a big impact. It does, however, affect parents being able to make choices for their children.
We are on hold until we hear otherwise."
The new superintendent in the history-rich Bauxite School District could possibly face his greatest challenge to date thanks to the federal judge's ruling on the Arkansas School Choice law. And all this in the very first year that Jerrod Williams is grasping the helm of leadership.
What Judge Dawson may not know is that during the 2011-2012 school year about 400 of the 1,520 students enrolled in the Bauxite School District were there through Arkansas School Choice. And for the upcoming 2012-2013 school year, Williams said there are already 94 new applicants from parents hoping their children can be added to that total through this process.
"That's 26.2 percent of the student population," Williams said. "Many parents are wanting their children to come to Bauxite schools because we still have that small school atmosphere, but still offer many of the same programs as the bigger school districts."
And the Bauxite School District has been able to maintain the small school feel that lets teachers have more one-on-one relationships with the students despite being the seventh-fastest growing school district in Arkansas for the past nine years. The school district experienced so much growth that several years ago, the plan was made to construct the first middle school facility in the district. In 2010, the doors to the 74,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Bauxite Middle School finally opened to the public.
But the continued growth that officials in Bauxite schools have experienced and grown accustomed to for numerous years could suddenly come to a halt thanks to Judge Dawson. But Williams said it is "much too early" to know what the future holds not only for parents who are applying for their children to attend, but also for the children who are already approved to attend through a previous year's acceptance through school choice.
"The decision threw everyone for a loop," Williams said. "But right now we are just watching and waiting. We are listening to advice from numerous attorneys (including school district attorney Paul Blume and various attorneys for the Arkansas Department of Education) … we are watching this situation very closely."
He also said that the school district is formalizing a letter to send to hundreds of parents whose children already attend through school choice or who are wanting their children to attend. The letter is not completed, and then there is the issue of mailing out close to 400 letters.
"We want to be able to put parents' minds at ease, yet let them know that when we find something out, we'll let them know," Williams said. "We are very blessed to have so many students here. Right now it is just a wait and see what awaits in the future."
He still believes that Bauxite is the place for his future even if things take a sudden dramatic turn in enrollment figures.
"I believe we should have shared visions and not just for this year, but for 10 to 15 years from now," Williams told The Saline Courier when he was first hired. "There is a tremendous amount of pride in Bauxite schools and I hope to keep it that way. I actually visited Bauxite a few times before I even applied to see if it is comfortable situation and if it is a good fit. I believe Bauxite is a great place to raise a family and know it will be a good fit."
Harmony Grove District
Harmony Grove, one of the smallest school districts in the county, housed slightly more than 50 students through the Arkansas School Choice Act in the 2011-2012 school year, and 20 students from the Harmony Grove district went to other schools last year.
But with the act now back in court, there is a chance that all of this will be no more come fall.
"I hate to see it," Harmony Grove Superintendent Daniel Henley said. "I hate it for the students and parents."
Thus far this summer, Harmony Grove already has approved 40 students for the upcoming school year. Only six students have chosen to leave in 2012-13.
"You would hope that (the courts) would grandfather in the students that have been a part of School Choice," Henley said. "I also think the kids that have already been approved should be allowed to attend."
Henley added that he has been attending meetings all week and no one really knows what is going to happen.
"It is all in limbo at this time," he said.
As of right now, Henley and the rest of the Harmony Grove district is "operating under the idea that the approved students will get to come to Harmony Grove in the fall."
"This is until someone tells me different," he said.
Glen Rose District
Glen Rose, just like every other school in the county, will be affected if the courts uphold the federal judge's ruling to abolish the Arkansas School Choice Act.
In 2012-13, Glen Rose had 30-plus students enrolled through School Choice.
"Nobody knows what is going to happen right now," Glen Rose Superintendent Nathan Gills said.
"We know what the judge said, but both sides have started their complaints in the case and have filed motions. Until we know what the results of those are, we just don't know whether school choice is going to be open to everyone, whether it will be closed or if those attending other schools will be grandfathered in."
(Editor's note: Contributing to this account were Courier staff writers Lynda Hollenbeck, Matt Burks, Tammy Shaw, Josh Briggs and Tony Lenahan.)