LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A federal judge on Friday struck down an Arkansas school choice law, saying race couldn't be the only factor considered in deciding whether students could transfer between districts.
U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson said a provision of the law dealing with race violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He said that part couldn't be separated from the rest of the law, so he declared the whole thing unconstitutional.
"The State must employ a more nuanced, individualized evaluation of school and student needs, which, while they may include race as one component, may not base enrollment or transfer options solely on race," Dawson wrote.
The state had argued that the provision in the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 was needed to preserve desegregation efforts.
But the judge said the "fear of `white flight' does not, in and of itself, justify the overbroad restrictions on school transfer."
Dawson's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a group of white parents who wanted to transfer their children from Malvern, Ark., to the nearby district of Magnet Cove. They argued that they should be given the option of putting their children in the schools of their choice without the limits placed on them by the race provision.
Andi Davis, a lawyer for the parents, said she's pleased but had hoped the judge would only strike down the part about race – not the whole school choice law.
Her fellow lawyer, Jess Askew III, said the parents plan to appeal part of the decision in order to restore the school choice law, save for the part about race.
He said he also plans to ask the court for some clarification. It wasn't immediately clear whether the ruling would affect students who had already switched schools under the law the judge tossed out.
"I think the decision creates a great deal of uncertainty for students and their parents who have made transfers under this statute in the past," Askew said.
More than 13,000 of Arkansas' 468,000 students currently go to schools in districts other than their own under one of Arkansas' school choice laws, said Seth Blomeley, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Education. He said there wasn't breakdown on the number of students who transferred schools under the law the judge tossed out.
Arkansas has long struggled with desegregation. In 1957, the state's governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop nine black students known as the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School.
"It could be argued that no state has been scrutinized as much as Arkansas with respect to the integration and segregation of its public schools," Dawson wrote in his 32-page ruling.
Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said he's asked his staff to review how the ruling will affect students, parents and districts and to work with the state's attorney general's office to figure out what legal action, if any, to take.
"That statute is one of a few statutes in Arkansas which allows students to attend school at a school district other than the school district in which the student resides," Kimbrell said in a statement.
Askew, the parents' lawyer, said other transfer laws apply for special situations and require the consent of the district where the student lives.
"This statue that was struck down (Friday) is the only one that did not require the consent of the district where the student resides," Askew said.
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