A bill that would allow students to transfer to districts where they do not live regardless of racial considerations was discussed by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday (March 13), but the sponsor did not ask for a vote because one of his co-sponsors was absent from the meeting.

Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) has four co-sponsors on the Senate Education Committee – enough to assure passage. But Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) was conducting other business, so Key decided to hold the bill for another day.

Key said after the meeting that waiting to ask for a vote would give him time to tweak the bill after Scott Richardson, an attorney for the Arkansas attorney general’s office, testified that changes might mitigate fears that an unfettered school choice bill would lead to resegregation in schools.

“There’s a difference between managing choice and limiting choice. There may be some room that we can (make it better),” he said.

The bill was filed in response to a ruling last year by a district court that the state’s previous school choice law was unconstitutional because of its race-based provisions.

The previous law did not allow students to transfer to a district with a higher percentage of students that were of their same race.  A group of parents in Malvern sued to allow their children to transfer.

The discussion featured competing legal arguments and competing values-based arguments.

The values-based discussion pitted the tension between allowing parents to send their children to the best district for them versus the resegregation that likely would result if parents could send their children anywhere. Two superintendents, Dr. Bob Watson of El Dorado and Dr. Jerry Guess of the Pulaski County Special School District, testified that segregation would very quickly occur. Another superintendent, Chester Shannon of Jackson County, testified in favor of the bill.

Legally, Jess Askew, the attorney for the Malvern parents, said that including any kind of race-based provision in a new school choice law would land the state back in court. Askew argued that the state can’t prevent people from choosing where to live based on racial considerations and, likewise, can’t prevent people from choosing where to send their children to school. “I will tell you that the Malvern case was the easiest lawsuit I’ve ever had,” he said.

But Alan Roberts, an attorney who filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the El Dorado and Camden-Fairview school districts, disagreed. He said that courts would say that a law passed where legislators knew the probable result would be resegregation would have the same weight as if they had done it intentionally.

There was a third legal argument: Wait for more guidance from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case is under appeal. That was the position of Richardson as well as Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, and Chris Heller, an attorney with the Friday Eldredge and Clark firm representing the Little Rock School District.

Key argued against the idea of waiting, saying that there could always be another case.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.