Judge hears arguments in school choice lawsuit


LITTLE ROCK — A federal judge Monday affirmed the right of parents and grandparents of children in the Blytheville School District to sue the district for opting out of Arkansas’ new school choice law but did not immediately rule on a request for a temporary injunction in the case.

The lawsuit, filed May 20 in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, alleges the Blytheville district has denied the constitutional rights of students by opting out of Act 1227, which removes race as a factor in determining whether students can transfer from one school district to another. The had asked the judge to dismiss the case.

“I understand the importance of these issues to all parties,” U.S. District Kristine Baker said Monday after hearing arguments on the request for a temporary injunction. She did not say when she would issue a ruling.

Jess Askew, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued the Blytheville School Board’s decision to opt out of the new law, “destroyed the hopes , goals and purposes of these fine people who want to improve the community and the options for their children.”

He also said that because the law was signed into law in mid-April by the governor, the April 1 deadline in the law for school districts to opt out of its provisions does not take effect until 2014, so the Blytheville district has no authority to prevent the transfer requests this fall.

Jay Beckett, the school district’s attorney, argued that the state Department of Education gave districts until May 17 to declare their intentions for the 2013-2014 school year, and that the district met the law’s opt out requirement.

The Legislature this year approved a measure that became Act 1227. The new law replaced the 1989 Public School School Choice Act that a federal judge in Little Rock struck down last year because it contained a race restriction on student transfers, which the judge said violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

The decision has been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Act 1227 allows districts under desegregation orders to opt out out of the new law. Blytheville was one of 22 school districts that notified the state Department of Education of plans to do so.

The district told the Education Department it was under two federal mandates, a desegregation order from 1978 and a Voting Civil Rights Act case from 1996. The district’s notice to the Education Department also cited the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools and served as the foundation for desegregation.

Askew argued Monday that cases the district cited failed to meet the opt-out requirements under Act 1227, and that the district, which has had declining enrollment in recent years and has some schools struggling to meet state academic standards, does not want to lose white students to neighboring school districts that already have majority white student populations.

“I think it is obvious from the face of the statute that the General Assembly and the governor knew that on April 16 when this statute took effect the April 1 deadline for 2013-2014 had passed and I think the only conclusion is that for this year there were going to be no exemptions” under the new law, Askew argued.

“When the language of the statute doesn’t help reach the overarching purpose, you try to argue that it means something other than it says and that’s what the Blytheville School District does,” he said.

Askew also said the cases the district used to opt out of the law were dismissed years ago and have nothing to do with any current issues in the district.

Beckett argued that the April 1 deadline in the law clearly meant for 2014.

“The clear reading that makes any sense and avoids any unintended results that fly in the face of the clear intent of the General Assembly is that the April 1 language … applies to the next school year,” he said, adding that was what the state Department of Education meant when it gave school districts until May 17 to declare plans to opt out of the new law for the 2013-2014 school year.

He said the General Assembly clearly wanted school choice, but for district to be able to opt out under some conditions.

“Plaintiffs can’t have their cake and eat it too,” he said. “Either there is choice in 2013-2014 with exemptions or there is no choice at all in 2013-2014.”

Also testifying during the hearing were Richard Atwill, superintendent of the Blytheville School District, and two parents with children in the district who want to transfer their children to the neighboring Armorel School District.