Panel rejects school choice bill

LITTLE ROCK — The House Education Committee on Thursday rejected a bill intended to replace the Arkansas school choice law that a federal judge struck down last year saying it relied too heavily on race as a factor in school transfers.

The committee’s vote followed an extended hearing in which several attorneys and Deputy Attorney General Scott Richardson urged lawmakers not to act until the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis rules on an appeal of the federal judge’s decision.

House Bill 1507 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, lists a number of guidelines for districts to consider in granting student requests to transfer from one district to another, including racial desegregation as a goal. It stipulates that neither of the districts can have a population of any single minority race of more than 10 percent of its total student population. If the percentage is more than 10 percent, the percentage of enrollment for the transfer student’s race in the receiving district must be less than the percentage in the previous school.

Hammer told reporters after Thursday’s vote that he did not believe the panel’s failure to endorse his bill was because of the proposal itself, but because members want to wait for the 8th Circuit to rule on the appeal.

“I don’t take it personally. I think once the information came out in the committee process that potentially the best thing to do is to wait and see, I think that at that point that was the position of the committee,” he said.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Robert T. Dawson ruled that a race-based provision in the 1989 Arkansas Public School Choice Act violates the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.

Dawson sided with parents living in the Malvern School District who challenged the school choice law after the Malvern district cited its desegregation provision in warning them to return their children who had enrolled in mostly white surrounding districts.

The ruling was appealed to the 8th Circuit where oral augments were heard in January.