Monday, June 03, 2013

TOP STORY >> Waiver granted PCSSD

Leader staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District was granted an exemption this week from the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 2013, a new law that was passed on April 16.

The new law allows students to enroll in schools other than those that they are zoned for based on where they live.

The exemption means that PCSSD will not approve any school choice transfers during the 2013-14 school year, Superintendent Jerry Guess said. He noted that this would affect an estimated 10 to 12 student transfers the district typically receives each year.

“We don’t get very many (school choice transfers),” Guess said.

The exemption was necessary because PCSSD is under court-ordered desegregation.

Students could be granted Opportunity School Choice transfers if the district were academically distressed, but that isn’t the case right now.

Guess noted that his office has taken five or six calls from parents who thought the new law gave them the choice to transfer their children to or from the district.

Guess said he had to tell them they couldn’t seek a transfer this year, at least not under the school choice act. For districts that are not exempt, the deadline to apply for a transfer is today.

“The state’s problem is that they have the responsibility to maintain desegregation,” the superintendent explained. “(And PCSSD) has the opportunity to protect against future litigation.”

Guess said he didn’t know how the new law would affect an independent school district in Jacksonville. He noted, “It’s premature to wonder.”

Guess said a Jacksonville school district would probably be exempt as well.

Petitions calling for an election to determine whether the city’s residents want a new independent school district are being circulated now.

State Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) explained that new law, which she voted for, didn’t give PCSSD a choice in the matter because it’s involved in the decades-old desegregation case.

“That has just tied them up,” she said.

The new law repealed the School Choice Act of 1989 because U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson ruled that it was unconstitutional for having a component based solely upon race. The old law prohibited transfers to districts where the percentage of the student’s race is higher than the percentage in the home district.

The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit a group of Malvern parents filed after their children weren’t allowed to enroll at Magnet Cove.

The students are white. Malvern is 60 percent white and Magnet Cove is 95 percent white. So they couldn’t transfer under the 1989 School Choice Act.

According to information released by the state after that law was thrown out, almost 14,000 students were enrolled at the end of the 2011-12 school year in districts other than the ones where they live.

English added, “We needed to change the law because it was unconstitutional. It’s important to me that people have a school choice. That’s the way it ought to be. We should not set a box that this is where you live and that is where you go to school.”