School distress fight includes collateral attack on school choice law | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, August 11, 2016

School distress fight includes collateral attack on school choice law

Posted By on Thu, Aug 11, 2016 at 2:34 PM

The state Board of Education today heard and rejected an appeal of a finding that the majority-black Mineral Springs High School is in academic distress, a designation that could eventually end in the district's takeover. The Board said the distress finding would allow the state to help the school.

Interesting that the district is fighting the state both before the Board and in federal court, where one argument is that the state has not been responsive to past requests for assistance.

A recent  amendment to a pending lawsuit also includes a challenge to the constitutionality of the state school transfer law. The plaintiffs, whose lawyers include state Rep. John Walker, say the school choice law opens the door to transfers for unconstitutional racial purposes. It contends the state has been derelict in its duty to compile data on those exercising a right to transfer that would show how transfers impact racial percentages.

Mineral Springs argued before the board today that the beginning of a new test to measure academic proficiency — the third in three years — makes this an inappropriate time to determine academic distress, defined as failure to have 49.5 percent of students achieve a score judged proficient. The threshold used in the past is now inoperative, they say.The state hasn't complied procedurally with the law on establishing a new threshold on the PARCC test now being used to measure proficiency, used for the first time in 2014-15. Mineral Springs says the state missed deadline in the law for providing notice of academic standing. But the board's counsel said it need not comply with some of the deficiencies raised, such as a filing of new rules with the secretary of state.

Mineral Springs listed ways in which it had acted to improve financial and academic performance, including a new high school principal, math coach and curriculum specialist. Meanwhile, the district said the state had not responded to requests for additional help from the Education Department. The district said, in a prepared presentation:

This district was on the verge of financial ruin, but we have turned this district completely around. We are currently building a state of the art K-12 campus. We have completely changed the financial picture of this district, and we are now asking for time. Give us the time to continue the efforts we have started, and to change the academic picture as well
The federal court case has interesting elements. It is scheduled to go to trial next year, if not dismissed on the state's motion. In it, the district said the state had encouraged the consolidation of Mineral Springs with neighboring majority black districts to further segregate white students in Hempstead County. In the course of this, the district argues the state had underestimated tax revenue to the district, which contributed to a fiscal distress designation. The district also found that money due Mineral Springs had been diverted elsewhere.

The lawsuit notes changes in state law (backed by now-Education Commissioner Johnny Key) that diluted safeguards against transfers for purely racial reasons. Since then, the white enrollment in Mineral Springs has declined as white students moved to the Nashville school district. As a result, Hempstead County now has one majority white district, and one, Mineral Springs, majority black.

Mineral Springs argues the state has purposely contributed to segregation. The suit's history of state action over the years is a valuable history lesson, if nothing else. It illustrates the coincidence of pressure from white parents seeking to leave heavily black districts with underlying court and legislative action to make school transfers easier, with little respect to race. Whites account for a disproportionate number of transfers, the filing contends.

Mineral Springs argued that the state is required to collect data on school transfers and report to the legislature on segregative impact, but has "purposely not collected all of the data it is required to collect under the School Choice Act and has also purposefully never reported any findings ..." UPDATE: The state said it made the required reports for two years and that the data is still available in its comprehensive data reporting.

The state argues that Mineral Springs ties together loosely related or irrelevant facts to make its case and also contends the state is immune from the suit. It says the race-neutral school transfer law is constitutional because it demonstrates no racial purpose. Mineral Springs can't demonstrate that it was enacted to encourage segregation. (Even if it does.)

The Mineral Springs issue followed a morning in which the state Board approved a number of district transfer requests including some to White Hall from a district, Dollarway, that had previously not participated in school choice because of past desegregation troubles.  The opinion of the board seems to be a developing consensus to approve most transfer requests, including in districts where race has been an issue, and force districts to go to court if they want to stop a departing student.

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