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Challenge to Race Restrictions in Ark. Choice Law Is Moot, Court Rules

A change in Arkansas law means that a challenge to race-based restrictions on student transfers between school districts is now moot, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

Two white families had challenged the the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989, which gave parents more options for their children by permitting interdistrict transfers of students. But the statute contained provisions aimed at preventing such transfers from harming desegregation efforts in either the sending or receiving district.

The law was challenged by two white families who had sought to transfer their children from the Malvern school district, where enrollment in the 2010-11 school year was 60 percent white, to the Magnet Cove district, which was 95 percent white. The Magnet Cove district denied the transfers, citing the provisions of the school choice law.

The families challenged the consideration of race in that way as a violation of the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

A federal district judge in Fort Smith, Ark., last year used the case to strike down the 1989 law, holding that the state may not base interdistrict transfer decisions solely on race. The judge applied the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, which sharply curtailed the ways school district could voluntarily consider race in assigning students to schools.

The Arkansas case might have been on a track toward the Supreme Court for a followup to the Parents Involved decision. However, Arkansas lawmakers earlier this year found that the district court's invalidation of the 1989 choice law in its entirety cast doubt on most interdistrict transfers. They passed the Public Choice Act of 2013, which re-established transfer options without the race-based limitations of the 1989 law. The 2013 statute contains an exemption ostensibly for school districts that are subject to federal desegregation orders and mandates to continue to take race into account in transfer requests. (A number of districts in the state that have been declared unitary, such as Little Rock, have nevertheless sought the exemption.)

In a July 25 decision in Teague v. Cooper, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that the passage of the 2013 law meant that the white families no longer had a live controversy and thus their case was moot.

For one thing, the court said, the families had applied for transfers under the new law and were approved. "Thus, as the parents later conceded, the 2013 act affords their children the full prospective relief they seek in the lawsuit. In these circumstances, the claims are moot because the parents are no longer in need of any protection from the challenged practice," the court said.

Secondly, the court rejected the parents' arguments that state lawmakers might revert to the race-based restrictions in the near future.

"We see no indication [the General Assembly] intends to reenact a statewide, exclusively race-based limitation," the court added. "By rewriting the entire statute and eliminating all explicitly race-based limits on school transfers, the General Assembly evidenced an intent to move away from this constitutionally sensitive issue so as to preserve the benefits of school choice."

The 8th Circuit court panel ordered the district court to dismiss the parents' suit.

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