The lead sponsor of a bill to change Arkansas’ school choice law, declared unconstitutional last year because of its race-based limitation, is confident that the Legislature will pass some kind of fix this session that will allow students to transfer to districts where they do not reside.

Senate Bill 65 would allow parents to transfer their children into any district in Arkansas, with the only race-based limitation involving districts under a racial desegregation court order.

“What’s encouraging is I’ve not run into anyone in the Legislature who thinks that we shouldn’t have some type of choice option,” said Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) in an interview Wednesday. “So whether it’s this bill or some amended version of this bill, or something else out there, I feel confident that we will have a school choice law when we leave here that will not be based on race as the sole factor.”

District Judge Robert Dawson ruled the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 to be unconstitutional because of its race-based provisions. The act allowed nonresident students to transfer to another district, but, in an effort to prevent resegregation, only if the district had a lower percentage of students who were of the transferring student’s race.

The ruling is under appeal, but Key said parents and school districts can’t wait for a ruling whose timing is uncertain. The deadline for school transfers is July 1.

Key said he filed the bill “just to start the conversation. I’ve been hearing what we can and can’t do. Well, we can’t do anything until we get a bill in place.”

Some fear the proposal would lead to resegregation. In the interview, Key said he understands those concerns but said the state’s racial attitudes have advanced since the law was passed and that educational opportunities now carry more weight with parents.

He said he would prefer the bill pass with full school choice options. However, it could be amended to include other limiting factors, such as poverty, that aren’t specifically race-based but that might reduce resegregation.

In other education news, the Senate Education Committee Wednesday passed a bill allowing Arkansas to join the 43 other states that are members of the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission. Created in 2008, the commission sets up processes that bridge differences between states on issues such as educational records, kindergarten entrance ages, and courses required for graduation.

UPDATE: Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) on Wednesday filed a competing school choice bill, SB 14, the Arkansas Interdistrict Public School Choice Act of 2013, that does not limit transfers based on race. However, it does let school districts petition the State Board of Education to opt out of the school choice program if they believe it will lead to resegregation, or if participation would conflict with a federal desegregation order. Exemptions would last up to three years.

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Steve Brawner

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