LITTLE ROCK — A federal lawsuit filed by parents and grandparents of children in the Blytheville School District alleges the district has denied the constitutional rights of students by opting out of the state’s new school choice law.
Blytheville was one of 22 school districts that notified the state Department of Education by Friday’s deadline that they planned to opt of Act 1227 of 2013. The new law replaced the 1989 Public School School Choice Act that a federal judge in Little Rock struck down last year because it contained a race restriction on student transfers, which the judge said violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The decision has been appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Act 1227 stipulates that districts under desegregation orders can opt out out of the new by April 1, but because the law wasn’t signed by Gov. Mike Beebe until mid-April the Department of Education gave districts a May 17 deadline to let them know if they planned to opt out for the 2013-2014 school year.
The lawsuit against the Blytheville School District, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, argues that the cases the district cites for opting out of the new law fail to meet the opt-out requirements under Act 1227. It asks for a temporary injunction until the case is resolved.
"Blytheville School District has acted in bad faith and in opposition to the laws and public policy of the State of Arkansas in connection with the actions described in this complaint," the lawsuit alleges, adding that the district "is motivated at least in part by race in depriving plaintiffs and their children of the benefits of school choice under the act."
Blytheville Superintendent Richard Atwill, who did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking comment, told the Arkansas News Bureau earlier this month that the school board passed a resolution opting out of the new law because the district is under two federal mandates.
The first, he said, is a desegregation order from 1978 and the second is a Voting Civil Rights Act case from 1996.
"The Civil Rights Voters Act is still subject to court order," Atwill said. "Under the desegregation case, it’s my understanding that the court still retains jurisdiction."
In its letter notifying the state Department of Education that it planned to opt out of the new school law, the district also cited the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools and served as the foundation for desegregation.
Little Rock Attorney Jess Askew, who is representing one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Blytheville School District, said Tuesday that none of the cases cited by the Blytheville School District fit the criteria for opting out under the new law.
"Trying to claim an exemption … based on Brown v. Board of Education is, in my opinion, laughable," he said. "While it remains an enormously important legal decision in the history of American juris prudence, it is not the type of court order to which a school district in Arkansas is subject … for the exemption. The exemption is based on a current tense court order, not something that happened nearly 60 years ago."
Askew said the desegregation case referenced by the Blytheville School District was filed in 1970 and dismissed in 1978. As for the Voting Civil Rights Act case, he said that was different and had nothing to do with desegregation.
He also said the school district cannot opt out of the new school choice law for the 2013-2014 school year.
"Any school district that thinks it can opt out based on a restated deadline from the department of education is in effect trying to rewrite the law, and that is not permissible," he said.
Askew, who is also the attorney challenging the 1989 law now being appealed by the 8th Circuit, also said the state law does not allow for school districts to opt out for the 2013-2014.
Along with the Blytheville district, other school districts that advised the Department of Education by Friday’s deadline that would be opting out 0f Act 1227 during the 2013-2014 year are Arkadelphia, Camden Fairview, Cutter Morning Star, Dollarway, El Dorado, Forrest City, Fountain Lake, Helena-West Helena, Hope, Hot Springs, Jessieville, Junction City, Lake Hamilton, Lakeside in Chicot County, Little Rock, Marvell-Elaine, Mountain Pine, Pulaski County Special, South Conway, Stephens and Texarkana.