Should parents in Arkansas be able to choose what schools their children attend without restriction? If so, would that result in racial resegregation in parts of the state, with mostly white schools in one part of the county and schools with mostly minority students in another part? If so, what should the state do to discourage that from happening?
Legislators are asking those questions because Arkansas’ previous school choice law was declared unconstitutional in a district court last year. Under that law, a parent could send their child to a district other than the one where the family resides. However, the transfer was not allowed if the new school district had a higher percentage of that student’s race than the student’s resident district.
That brought on a lawsuit from parents who wanted to transfer their students from the Malvern School District to neighboring Magnet Cove.
In that case, the district judge ruled that the state couldn’t base its school-choice law on race, so the entire law was thrown out. The case is under appeal, and if it is not resolved by this summer, then there will be no choice option next school year. That means legislators need to do something while they are in session these next two months.
Let’s be clear: There’s no indication whatsoever that race was a motivating factor in those Malvern parents’ lawsuit. They wanted to give their children the best education possible. Who can blame them for that?
However, Hot Spring County is the kind of situation the old school choice law tried to address by limiting transfers. The school district in the county’s only city, Malvern, has a majority white population but a large number of African-American students. Meanwhile, the county has four rural districts where most of the students are white. Two of them, including Magnet Cove, are only a few miles from the Malvern campus.
The school choice debate involves two competing values. Should parents have the right to send their children to the school that’s the best fit for them and where they can get the best education possible? Most Arkansans probably would say yes. Does the state want to do anything that, over time, would result in racially segregated schools? Looking back at Arkansas history, most people probably would say no.
So the next question is, are we past the days of white flight? State Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, says we’re close enough. He’s introduced a school choice bill that basically would allow parents to choose their children’s school, period. He says that most parents today would not drive their children to a neighboring district just so they can sit comfortably next to kids who look like them. Moreover, schools can offer differentiating programs – like El Dorado’s free college tuition for students – that would attract families regardless of their ethnicity.
Two other legislators also have introduced school choice bills. One by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would allow parents to choose their children’s school but let schools opt out of the school choice program if they believe it would result in racial resegregation. Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, has introduced two bills: one that would allow currently transferred students to stay in their new schools, and one that would list about a dozen reasons a family could request a school transfer in the future.
While bills involving guns and abortion have been sailing through the Legislature, these school choice bills haven’t even been discussed in committee yet.
That’s not surprising. This is a tough one for a lot of reasons. It involves human nature, Arkansas history, and the desire by a lot of people – parents, educators and legislators – to do the right thing even though it’s not clear what that is.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at @stevebrawner.