The Arkansas State Board of Education voted Monday (July 8) to deny the appeals of six families who reside in the Forrest City School District to transfer their children to nearby Palestine-Wheatley under the state’s new school choice law.

The decisions effectively remove the State Board of Education as a potential avenue for appeal for families whose requests to transfer their children have been denied.

The old law did not allow nonresident students to transfer to districts where there was a higher percentage of their own race than the district they were leaving. That provision was meant to prevent white flight. That law was declared unconstitutional last year because of its race-based provisions, so the Legislature this year passed a new school choice law removing race from consideration. However, it allowed districts under a desegregation order to exempt themselves from the law.

Palestine-Wheatley denied the parents’ request because the Forrest City School District exempted itself on the basis of a case from 1970. Twenty-three school districts have exempted themselves from the school choice law – some, like Forrest City, based on long ago court cases. State Board member Vicki Saviers said some districts were using that provision as “a way to game the system.”

However, Department of Education attorney Jeremy Lasiter and Forrest City’s attorney, Sam Jones, told board members that then-Attorney General Mike Beebe had advised in 2003 that the State Board should not attempt to decide if desegregation court orders were still in effect. That opinion referred to the old school choice law. ADE Commissioner Dr. Tom Kimbrell said courts would have to decide whether a desegregation order applies.

Board members expressed concerns about their ability to review those orders on a case-by-case basis. They all voted to deny the appeals except new board member Diane Zook, who voted for the appeals, and Chairman Brenda Gullett, who did not vote.

The board decided three of the cases during a lengthy hearing before lunch, setting the precedent for the afternoon cases. In the morning cases, the parents’ attorney, George Rozzell, argued that Forrest City could not exempt itself because it did not notify the Department of Education by the April 1 deadline that is prescribed by the school choice law. However, no district was able to meet that deadline because the law wasn’t passed until April 16. To try to address that situation, the Department of Education issued an informational memorandum saying districts had until a date in May to notify. But Rozzell said that memorandum couldn’t supersede state law.

In response, Jones argued that under the law, there is no deadline for this year.

Board member Sam Ledbetter said that under Rozzell’s reasoning, no district could exempt itself this year. Lasiter told the board that if it failed to allow any exemptions this year, it could put the law in violation of federal desegregation orders, potentially leading to the entire law being declared unconstitutional, as the previous law was.

Rozzell said afterwards that he would have to talk to the families before deciding what their next move would be.

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