LITTLE ROCK — The House Education Committee on Thursday rejected a bill intended to replace the Arkansas school choice law that a federal judge struck down last year saying it relied too heavily on race as a factor in school transfers.
The committee’s vote followed an extended hearing in which several attorneys and Deputy Attorney General Scott Richardson urged lawmakers not to act until the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis rules on an appeal of the federal judge’s decision.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, sponsor of the school choice bill, said later he believed the committee’s decision indicated a desire to wait until the federal appeals court rules.
"I don’t take it personally," Hammer told reporters later. "I think once the information came out in the committee process that potentially the best thing to do is to wait and see, I think that at that point that was the position of the committee was going take," he said.
He also said two other school choice bills currently before the Senate Education Committee would be treated the same way.
The sponsor of one of the Senate school choice bills said Thursday she and the sponsor of the other are trying to merge their measures and that the House committee’s vote would not affect their plans to pass legislation this session.
Hammer’s House Bill 1507 lists guidelines for school districts to follow in considering student transfers, including racial desegregation as a goal. It stipulates that neither of the districts can have a population of any single minority race of more than 10 percent of its total student population. If the percentage is more than 10 percent, the percentage of enrollment for the transfer student’s race in the receiving district must be less than the percentage in the previous school.
Hammer said he hopes the Senate reconsiders another school choice bill he sponsored, HB 1294, which would allow a student approved for transfer to a non-resident district under a provision of law that is later struck down or repealed to finish school in the new district. It also would allow current and future siblings of the student to attend the receiving district.
Last week, the Senate’s vote on the bill was 17-6, with 18 votes needed for passage.
"I think it would be in 16,000 students best interest if the Senate votes that thing out because it’s not right to keep people on edge knowing that there’s a solution there and holding that solution back for reasons that they would to explain themselves."
Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson ruled that a race-based provision in the 1989 Arkansas Public School Choice Act violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Dawson sided with parents living in the Malvern School District who challenged the school choice law after the Malvern district cited its desegregation provision in warning them to return their children who had enrolled in mostly white surrounding districts.
The ruling was appealed to the 8th Circuit where oral augments were heard in January.
Sen. Joyce Elliot, D-Little Rock, sponsor Senate Bill 114, which would keep racial desegregation as a goal, but not a mandate, and would allow school districts to opt out of school choice if they believe it would result in re-segregation, said she is working with Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, sponsor of another school choice bill, to see if they can develop a compromise proposal.
Key’s SB 65 would remove race as a factor in deciding whether students can transfer between school districts.
She said she and Key would prefer to see the Legislature address the issue rather than wait until the federal appeals court ruling.
Key did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.