June 27, 2012 Edition

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Stay granted in
school choice decision

Vivian Heyl
Staff Writer

On Friday, Federal Judge Robert T. Dawson granted a stay in his ruling striking down the Arkansas Public School Choice Act as unconstitutional.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a group of Malvern parents on behalf of their children.

The suit sought to remove the portions of the Arkansas Public School Choice Act (Ark. Code Ann. 6-18-206) of 1989 that prohibited the transfer from one school to another on racial grounds. The Arkansas Board of Education and Magnet Cove School District and Arkansas Department of Education were named as the defendants in the suit.

In an unexpected turn of events, Dawson issued a decision striking down the entire 1989 Freedom of Choice legislation as unconstitutional, not just those portions framed in the lawsuit.

Dawson said, "The Court fully expects this case to be appealed in view of the important issues presented in this case."

The litigants on both sides of the case filed an immediate appeal asking for a stay in the ruling.

Judge Dawson granted the stay while appeals are pending.

"I'm very thankful the federal judge issued a stay of the June 8 ruling," Sloan-Hendrix Supt. Mitch Walton said. "Since June 8th, superintendents and other school officials across the state have been at a standstill because the ruling did not specify what actions, if any, a school district could take."

Between 12,000 to 15,000 students are currently participating in school choice in the state. The financial and administrative problems schools would have faced had the stay not been granted would have been enormous.

"If the Freedom of Choice act is repealed it would have a financial impact not only on our district, but on other districts as well" Lawrence County School District Supt. Terry Belcher said.

Thanks to the stay, districts can now proceed with planning for the upcoming school year without worrying bout a major shift in their student population.

"If the School Choice Act had been repealed students who had previously opted to attend school in a different district could have been mandated to return to their resident district," Walton said.

A memo sent by the Arkansas Department of Education on June 22 stated in essence that while the appeals are pending, the Arkansas Public School Choice Act and the ADE rules regarding the act are still in force.

"The stay simply means that we will continue approving Freedom Of Choice students as usual, which we are proud of since we have a large number of FOC applicants for this coming year," said Dennis Truxler, Hoxie superintendant.

It has been noted that the appeal process takes a long time. The legislature will have time to address the issue in 2013.

"As for now, we will look forward to continuing to educate the students who have requested to attend Sloan-Hendrix, while enrolling the 12 new students who have been approved for "school choice" for the 2012-2013 school year," Walton said.

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