State Capitol Week in Review
From Senator Larry Teague
August 12, 2016
LITTLE ROCK – As parents and students prepare for the new school year, administrators are on the lookout for any changes in state policy on transfers and transportation.
There is a history of litigation affecting the Arkansas law that allows students to transfer to schools outside of the district in which they live. The 1989 school choice act was stricken in 2012 by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional. The legislature enacted a new school choice law in 2013 and updated it last year.
The school choice law strikes a balance between competing interests. On one hand, parents are allowed to place their children in what they believe to be the best local school, even if that school is in a neighboring district and not the district in which they live. On the other hand, in order to prevent segregation, school transfers are not allowed when the affected district is under an active court order to desegregate.
The current Arkansas school choice law remains intact. However, last week a federal judge denied a student transfer from Jacksonville to Cabot. He is the judge currently presiding over the Pulaski County desegregation case, which has been ongoing for 33 years.
His order overturned a vote by the state Board of Education allowing the transfer and asserted federal authority over the Board’s authority in desegregation lawsuits.
Jacksonville is in Pulaski County and Cabot is in Lonoke County. A complicating factor is that Jacksonville recently split away from the Pulaski County Special School District, an original defendant in the desegregation case. This school year is the first time the Jacksonville schools will operate as a separate district.
Sixteen of the 235 school districts in Arkansas have notified the state Education Department that they are under active desegregation orders and therefore students may not transfer out of them to nearby districts.
The financial implication is that state financial aid is based on enrollment, in other words it follows the student and is distributed through a “per pupil” formula.
Transportation is another financial issue for the legislature and local school administrators, and it too has potential legal consequences.
The state is obligated to provide adequate education funding to all school districts. The Arkansas Supreme Court reaffirmed the state’s duty in a series of rulings in the long-running Lake View school funding case.
Under the school funding formula, the state provides $321 per pupil for transportation costs, but that is not enough for spread-out rural districts to cover the costs of running school buses. In compact urban districts it is more than enough.
Legislators on the Senate and House Education Committees voted to ask for an attorney general’s opinion on whether they can change the funding formula so that transportation costs are more closely tracked and paid for.
Specifically, legislators want to know the legal consequences of providing transportation funds based on “route miles” rather than the number of students on the bus. Basing state aid on route miles would be straightforward, but legislators do not want the state to get embroiled in another lawsuit. The attorney general represents the state in lawsuits.