LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education on Monday denied appeals from 12 families of students whose transfer requests were denied under the new school choice law — a law that some members complained was flawed and gave them no way to help families.
The School Choice Act of this year removes race as a factor in granting or denying student transfer requests, but it allows school districts under desegregation orders to opt out of the law — an option that 23 districts have exercised. Most of the appeals that came before the board Monday concerned transfer requests that were denied because the students’s home districts have opted out.
As it did at its July meeting, the board denied every appeal. Members said their hands were tied because they were not qualified to determine whether desegregation orders are valid.
Monica Barnett, whose request to transfer her daughter from the Forrest City district to the Wynne district was denied, told the board she works in Wynne.
"Me and my husband have been wracking our brains since we knew she was going to kindergarten for a way for us to be able to take care of her before and after school if she goes to Forrest City, and couldn’t find a way," she said.
Among other parents who testified was Darlene Farmer, whose appealed the denial of her request to transfer her daughter from the Hot Springs district — which is where the family lives although Farmer’s daughter has been attending private school — to the Lakeside School District. The Lakeside district is stronger academically than the Hot Springs district, she said.
Farmer said the request was denied because she listed her daughter’s ethnicity as "white" on the request form. The school districts in Garland County are under a desegregation order that requires them not to allow transfers that would lead to segregation.
Farmer said she later learned that the transfer would have been granted if she had checked a box labeled "two or more races," which she said would have been accurate because her daughter is part Native American. She said she was not allowed to fill out a new form because the deadline had passed.
"If she wasn’t even going to … the Hot Springs district, then it’s not even messing with the (racial) ratios," she said.
During the meeting, several board members expressed frustration.
"I’m obviously going to have to vote the way the law is written, but I don’t agree with it," said Diane Zook of Melbourne.
"The Legislature conceived of this flawed legislation and is now dangling it in front of parents without really giving them an opportunity to have a choice," said Vicki Saviers of Little Rock.
Some members said they sympathize with parents who want to get their children out of academically troubled schools.
Board Chairman Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville noted that the law expires in 2015, when lawmakers have said they will revisit it.
"We may want to have a work session on this and look at some recommendations to the Legislature for when they do rewrite this law in 2015, that schools’ academic status would be a consideration," she said.
Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock defended the law, which the Legislature passed in response to a federal judge’s ruling last year that the state’s previous school choice law was unconstitutional because it restricted transfers based on race.
Ledbetter said the opt-out provision in the new law takes into account that some parts of Arkansas have been recognized by federal courts as having a history of state-sponsored school segregation.
"I just don’t think re-segregating our schools is going to be the solution," he said.