El Dorado News

March 24, 2018
El Dorado News Times


JC School District to appeal school choice exemption denial

Lowe: Participating violates ‘spirit of the 1969 and 1974 federal court orders’

By Brittany Williams
This article was published March 2, 2018 at 5:00 a.m.

JUNCTION CITY — The Junction City School District will appeal its denial to opt out of the Public School Choice Act at an Arkansas Department of Education hearing next week.

The law, which has been changed since its adoption, allows students to attend school in a school district other than the one they reside in, as space allows.

ADE rules cap the number of transfers to “no more than three percent of the enrollment that exists in the school district as of October 15 of the immediately proceeding school year.” A document on the ADE’s website caps Junction City’s School Choice transfers to 20 students based on 2016 enrollment numbers.

According to a memo by ADE Commissioner Johnny Key, parents must submit school choice applications by May 1 and should inform the student’s current district within 10 days. The non-resident district must notify parents on whether the transfer was approved or denied by July 1.

ADE data shows that almost 3 percent of public school students successfully were transferred through School Choice requests during the 2016-2017 school year.

If participating in the School Choice Act conflicts with a federal court desegregation order or court-ordered desegregation plan, the State Board of Education would allow an exemption. Districts that want an exemption must annually send proof of “general conflict” or a plan “that explicitly limits the transfer of students between school districts” to the ADE by Jan. 1, according to a previous Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report.

According to document emailed to the ADE by Junction City School District’s attorneys, Allen Roberts and Whitney Moore, the district was listed as a “non-participatory district on the school choice page of the ADE’s website … since 2013.”

Unless a district has “a written exemption under the law,” it must participate in the School Choice Act, ADE staff attorney Jennifer Davis said. According to its website, the ADE has issued a written exemption to the El Dorado School District, as well as six others.

The Junction City School District submitted documentation to the state education department “on time,” Davis said.

“They submitted documentation that was more in the district, intra-district desegregation, but the documentation referred to a plan of desegregation that was not included in what they sent, so that’s why their request was denied,” Davis said. “However, if they wanted to supplement and resubmit that plan of desegregation that had been referred to, we would review it if they wanted us to reconsider it.”

The district decided to appeal its case to the State Board of Education rather than resubmitting its exemption request to the ADE by Jan. 26, Davis said.

JCSD Superintendent Robby Lowe said, “The Junction City School District is reviewing the Arkansas Department of Education’s decision to deny the district’s request for an exemption from participating in school choice … The district and its attorneys believe that participating in inter-district school choice will violate the spirit of the 1969 and 1974 federal court orders.”

Roberts and Moore responded to Davis’ letter proclaiming the exemption denial in an emailed document dated Feb. 2.

“The ADE’s decision to require JCSD to participate in school choice because JCSD’s desegregation order is ‘intra-district’ does not address the segregative impact participation will have on JCSD,” the written correspondence read. “The inter-district movement of students between JCSD and surrounding districts, including but not limited to (the) Parkers Chapel School District, that would result from JCSD’s participation.”

The attorneys compared the districts’ 2017-2018 enrollment numbers and racial demographics - 38 percent of the Junction City School District student population is black, while 10 percent of the Parkers Chapel School district is black, according to the emailed document.

“JCSD’s position is that any time demographic differences such as these exists, i.e. a substantially ‘blacker’ district bordered by a substantially ‘whiter’ district, the result of the ‘blacker’ district’s participation in free and unrestricted school choice will be white flight,” Roberts and Moore wrote.

The district’s legal representation also concluded that certain provisions of the 2017 School Choice Act are unconstitutional and wrote that the federal court “is the proper entity to evaluate whether or not JCSD has a conflict with participating in school choice … The General Assembly cannot undermine federal court authority and orders by inserting restrictions such as ‘explicitly’ and ‘interdistrict’ where they do not appear, and in ways that would undermine the ability of the parties to comply with their constitutional obligations.”

The State Board of Education will hear the district’s appeal during a meeting scheduled at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Auditorium. A live stream of the meeting will be available at http://bit.ly/1ba089v.

Brittany Williams may be reached at 870-862-6611 or bwilliams@eldoradonews.com. Follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook @BWilliamsEDNT for updates on Union County school news.

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