Arkansas Families Fight in Court for School Choice

Published February 1, 2009

Dismayed by failing local public schools in which their children are trapped by state law, Arkansas families are fighting for the right to cross school district boundaries.

The precedent set by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision may help them succeed regardless of whether the state legislature decides to act on the issue.

A federal judge in December granted a hearing to parents who brought a lawsuit to stop their children from being compelled to attend the struggling Malvern School District in central Arkansas. At stake are thousands of dollars in tax revenues and the fate of the state’s School Choice Act of 1989. The district receives about $5,700 in tax revenues for each student enrolled.

A key provision of the legislation limits students’ ability to transfer to a public school district outside their area of residence if doing so would increase racial segregation. Malvern’s 35 percent minority student population is greater than in all the surrounding districts, essentially eliminating the ability of white parents living in the district to choose a different public school for their children.

Malvern, P.I.

To enforce its policy, Malvern School District has hired private investigators to track down local students attending school elsewhere and force them back into the local schools.

“They are left without an option,” said Andi Davis, the attorney representing the parents in the federal lawsuit.

Dan Bufford, who represents the Malvern School District, refused comment.

Enforcing Boundaries

Malvern currently is in its fourth year of being recognized as needing improvement under federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) provisions.

“They are in academic distress now,” Davis said. “The schools these parents are choosing to send their kids to are not.”

Approximately 40 parents joined the lawsuit, which was filed on October 29, 2008.

Late Information

In August, Malvern school officials began mailing letters to parents of about 100 students who were enrolled in neighboring districts though they live within the boundaries of Malvern, informing them they had to return their children or face penalties including a $500 fine.

Davis said some parents did not receive the notice from the school district until early October, well after many of their children already had started the school year in other districts.

“The district is trying to bring these kids back, but they’ve been very unreasonable in how they’re going about it,” said Davis. “They’re not even willing to grandfather students in.”

Some parents opted not to fill out the paperwork to transfer out of their home district, as required by the 1989 law, because the district did not give them the opportunity to submit it before the deadline.

“It would have been futile for us to jump through those hoops,” Davis said.

Following Precedent

In June 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District that school districts cannot use race as a factor in assigning students to schools. Davis argues this applies to the Malvern case.

“The meat and potatoes of the case is good,” Davis said. “I feel confident the judge is going to rule in our favor.”

State Rep. Mike Burriss (D-Malvern) disagreed, saying the facts vary too much among different families to make a blanket judgment.

“This is one of those situations where there just isn’t a clear-cut answer, because each case has its own uniqueness,” Burriss said.

Seeking Satisfaction

Davis said she hopes the state legislature will amend the School Choice Act to comply with the Seattle decision, but she says the parents pressing the case will seek satisfaction either way.

“We will eventually be heard, or the law will be changed,” said Davis. She said the 1989 school choice law “makes it perfectly clear why they want parents to send students to the school of their choice—schools will become more competitive. Just because of their race and the district they’re in, they shouldn’t be knocked out of the opportunity of being able to choose.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, U.S. Supreme Court, June 28, 2007: