Arkansas Lawmakers Debate School Transfer Changes

LITTLE ROCK - Removing race as the main factor in deciding whether a student can transfer to another school district in Arkansas would give parents more control on educational choices for their children, one lawmaker said Wednesday, but opponents warned the idea could lead to segregation.

The Senate Education Committee debated Republican Sen. Johnny Key's proposal to rewrite a 1989 school choice law that a federal judge struck down last year as unconstitutional. The state had tried to prevent "white flight" by barring most transfers where a student wanted to switch into district where a higher percentage of students were of his or her race.

Key's proposal, one of two competing plans before the panel to address that ruling, would remove race as a consideration. Key, the committee's chairman, said he'll ask the panel to vote on his plan later.

"This bill puts the parent in the driver's seat," Key, R-Mountain Home, told the committee.

The lawsuit that sparked last year's court decision was filed by a group of white parents who sought to transfer their children from Malvern, which is 60 percent white, to Magnet Cove, which is 95 percent white. They argued that they should be allowed to put their children in the schools of their choice without the limits placed on them by the race provision.

A judge agreed and struck down the law - a decision the state is now appealing.

Opponents of Key's proposal said that if lawmakers eliminate race as a factor in school transfers, they will end up with segregated school districts. Arkansas has a history of struggling with desegregation issues.

"I do not think (Key's proposal) does enough to be sure that we don't return to where we once were," Bob Watson, superintendent of the El Dorado School District, told lawmakers.

The committee has heard a competing proposal from Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, that would allow districts to exempt themselves from the school choice program if they believe it would lead to racial segregation.

Key said afterward that he didn't know when he would seek a vote on his measure but he believed he had enough support to send it to the Senate floor. Republicans control five of the eight seats on the committee.

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