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Arkansas, Race, and School Choice
June 12, 2012
Prior to joining the Kingsbury Center, I spent several years working at the University of Arkansas as a researcher in the Office for Education Policy (OEP). Much of my/our work in the OEP was focused on relevant issues in education policy in both Arkansas and across the nation, with a specific emphasis on what impact these policies have on Arkansas students.
I still try to keep up-to-date on issues impacting Arkansas, and I just became aware of a recent court ruling there that has some major implications for Arkansas’ students. I realize Arkansas education is probably not the most interesting to non-Arkansans, but I wanted to share this story anyways because I think it speaks to an issue that is relevant in education everywhere, not just in Hog Country.
Last week, a federal judge overturned the school choice law in Arkansas, a law which used student race as the primary determinant for whether or not students could attend schools other than their own (here is a recap of the story from the Washington Post). Essentially, students were allowed to transfer to other schools in other districts if the percentage of enrollment for the transferring student’s race in his or her new school did not exceed the percentage in the student’s resident district. In other words, if a white student wanted to transfer to a new school, he could only do so if the new school was not “whiter” than his previous school.
The reason for this law is probably pretty apparent—desegregation in Arkansas was a pretty big concern in the middle of the 20th century (and still is today)—so this law was put into place to give students choices in education while limiting the risk or likelihood of “white flight” or increased segregation.
The reason this law was overturned was because a white student was denied a transfer to a neighboring district which had a greater composition of white students than his previous district, and so the family of that student filed a suit claiming that race should not be the sole criterion used in the determination of whether these transfers are allowed. Well, the student and his family won the suit (race will no longer be a factor in decisions about student choice transfers), but instead of simply allowing this student to transfer, the courts simply got rid of the school choice law altogether. And, perhaps the most important outcome of this ruling is that approximately 15,000 students in Arkansas have taken advantage of this choice law, with their status now in limbo about how this ruling will impact them—specifically, whether they can continue to attend the school they chose to attend or if they have to return to their “home” district.
I realize school choice is a polarizing topic, but I feel comfortable saying that I think students should have more open choices about where they want to go to school. However, this ruling feels in many ways like Arkansas is throwing the baby out with the bath water – instead of putting thought into an alternative framework that would allow students flexibility in school options while minimizing the risk of having completely segregated school environments, the courts instead decided to scrap the whole idea of choice altogether.
I think diversity is extremely important for students; however, I also think families and students should be able to determine what they value most in an education environment. The decision in Arkansas will likely go a long way towards ensuring that the schools in Arkansas do not become more segregated than they already are. At the same time, this decision will also ensure that students are compelled to attend schools in their local district, regardless of whether or not these schools are actually meeting the students’ educational needs.
Unfortunately, for the families that can afford to move, this won’t be an issue; they can move into the district of the schools they prefer. But for those families that can’t afford to seek out a better school for their children by relocating, this decision has simply taken away one of the few options these students have to attend the school that is best for them and their education.
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