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Appeals Court Upholds Ark. District's Effort to Block Interdistrict Transfers

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld an Arkansas school district's decision to opt out of a state program allowing interdistrict student transfers, in a case where the district claimed it is still subject to a federal desegregation order.

The 2,400-student Blytheville district in 2013 denied transfer requests on behalf of white children from five families, citing its continuing desegregation obligations. Specifically, the district said it was still subject to a 1973 letter from the office for civil rights in the then-Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that required the district to meet certain obligations. A desegregation lawsuit involving the district was dismissed in 1978.

"While we decline to hold as a matter of law that the district" is currently subject to a desegregation mandate, said the opinion by a 2-1 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, in St. Louis, "we do hold that the district at least had a rational basis for believing that it is subject to the mandate of a federal court or agency."

Thus, the school district could reasonably decide to opt out of the 2013 choice law, the court said in its Aug. 31 decision in Stevenson v. Blytheville School District No. 5.

(Arkansas this year amended its law on the interdistrict choice program to require school districts to provide the state with clear documentation of their desegregation orders and obligations, but that didn't affect this case.)

The white families that challenged the Blytheville district's decision to claim the desegregation exemption argued, among other things, that the district did not claim any interference with its desegregation obligations in 2009 when it allowed 250 students, most of them black, to transfer to a KIPP charter school in the district.

The appeals court noted that the school district did not seek to block any transfers to the KIPP Academy, regardless of race, just as its actions blocked all transfers under the 2013 interdistrict choice law.

The court also held that the 2013 law did not give parents a protected property interest in school choice as the law gave school districts some degree of discretion in deciding whether to accept transfer students.

"By its plain language, [the law] provides to [students] the possibility of transfer to another district, not a guarantee or absolute right to transfer," the majority said. 

U.S. Senior Circuit Judge C. Arlen Beam dissented on several issues, including his view that the 2013 law did create a property interest in school choice.

"The 2013 Act created justifiable expectations that students could attend a school in a nonresident district," he wrote.

Beam also said the Blytheville district "had no rational basis for believing it was still subject to a desegregation order, and consequently no means of lawfully exempting itself from the 2013 Act."

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