Let’s start this column with the kind of quote that usually would appear at the end: "To me that’s the art of legislating," Key said. "I go into it with what I want, what I think is best, understanding that it’s give and take. I’ve seen examples of an all or nothing approach that, in the end, end in failure."
"Key" is Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, and the legislation he’s referring to is The Public School Choice Act of 2013.
Passed during this past legislative session, it allows Arkansas schoolchildren to transfer to another school district without moving away from home. But it has some important restrictions. For example, no district can lose more than three percent of its population, the effects of the law must be studied, and the entire law must be reconsidered at the end of two years.
The Public School Choice Act of 2013 exists because the Public Choice Act of 1989 was declared unconstitutional by a district court last year. That act didn’t cap nonresident student transfers, but there was a catch: Students couldn’t transfer to a district with a higher percentage of the student’s race than the one they were leaving. In other words, a white kid couldn’t go to a whiter district unless his family moved.
That was meant to prevent racial resegregation. But a group of parents in Malvern who wanted to transfer their students outside the district sued. The court said the state couldn’t base transfers on race and threw out the whole law.
The ruling was under appeal when the legislative session started, but no one knew when the decision would come. Many in the education establishment wanted to wait, but legislators felt it was important to address the issue before the next school year begins.
Key’s original bill would have allowed virtually unlimited transfers, and by the middle of the session, he probably could have passed it, at least in the Senate. There were nine members of the Senate Education Committee, and four of them had joined him as co-sponsors.
But opponents of the measure testified that unlimited transfers would result in rapid resegregation and a return to white and black schools in parts of the state. Dr. Bob Watson, longtime superintendent of the El Dorado School District, said white parents absolutely would transfer their children out of his majority black district because of race, even if it meant forgoing the free college tuition promised El Dorado students by Murphy Oil. "You’re going to have to make that classroom whiter, or I’m leaving," one parent had told him.
In response to those concerns, Key added those amendments restricting transfers to three percent and sunsetting the law in two years.
Key told me as the session was winding down that he still believed that his original, unlimited school choice bill would not have led to white flight. He said parents will make the right educational choices for their children and that Arkansas has moved mostly beyond its racially segregated past.
Is he right, or is Watson? At this point, the answer is not so important because Key’s legislation addresses the concern. A district can lose only three percent of its students, and the law is only good for two years. If we learn by 2015 that the three percent in most districts has been made up of only white students with a waiting line behind them, then the law can be changed with a minimum of hard feelings. And if Key is right about Arkansas’ progress, and hopefully he is, then the law can be expanded, and he’ll end up accomplishing most of what he hoped to do in the first place.
That’s the art of legislating. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, it’s often better if it’s not. Congress, are you paying attention?
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.