A fix for the state’s school choice law for student transfers, declared unconstitutional by a district judge last year, got its first hearing in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 114 by Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) would allow students to transfer to districts other than the ones where they live. At the same time, schools could opt out of the entire school choice system if they fear their participation would lead to racial resegregation.

The state’s previous school choice law, passed in 1989, allowed nonresident transfers. However, in an effort to prevent resegregation, students were not allowed to transfer to another district with a higher percentage of their own race. The law was declared unconstitutional last year because of that race-based provision. The case is under appeal, but students and their families either need a court decision or a legislative fix by this summer to prepare for the next school year. Since no one knows when the decision is coming, legislators are looking for a fix.

Elliott is the Education Committee’s vice chair. The chair, Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home), has proposed Senate Bill 65, which would allow unlimited school choice except when it would conflict with a school desegregation order.

Elliott, who attended all-black schools as a child, testified that her bill was necessary to prevent schools from quickly resegregating – a situation that would be bad both for African-American children, who would not receive an equal education, and white children, who would be deprived of the experiences they need for a multi-ethnic world, she said.

Two longtime superintendents, Dr. Bob Watson of El Dorado and Dr. Jerry Guess of the Pulaski County Special School District, testified that schools would rapidly resegregate with an open school choice law without provisions to prevent that from happening. Watson said white parents often ask to transfer out of his district, which has a majority of African-American students, into nearby rural mostly white districts. They request this despite it meaning they would lose eligibility for the El Dorado Promise, the program funded by Murphy Oil that provides college scholarships to El Dorado students. “You’re going to have to make that classroom whiter, or I’m leaving,” one parent told him.

Allen Roberts, who represented two districts that intervened in the school choice court case last year, said actions that have the foreseeable effect of causing segregation make the state vulnerable to lawsuits even if the state does not intend for that to happen. Moreover, he said that the state’s previous school choice law has been cited as a pro-integration action in court cases, and that an open choice law would delay or prevent the Pulaski County Special School District desegregation case from ending.

Committee members had questions about Elliott’s bill. Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) asked whether efforts to prevent racial resegregation under her bill would lead to violations of the same constitutional provisions that the last law violated. Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) took exception with the idea that a large number of white Arkansas families would try to transfer their students to other schools simply because they had more white students.

Clark also argued that families that can afford to move to other districts do so. A law with strings attached would leave only poor families unable to transfer their children to better schools, he said.

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