A federal appeals court has reversed its earlier decision that exempted four south Arkansas school districts from participating in student transfers that are otherwise allowed by the state's School Choice Act.
The Hope, Camden Fairview, Lafayette County and Junction City school districts in 2019 filed four separate but similar lawsuits against state officials, arguing that Arkansas School Choice Act student transfers would result in white flight and hinder the districts in complying their previously issued federal school desegregation consent decrees and orders.
This past December, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to modify the districts' desegregation plans to bar School Choice Act inter-district student transfers.
In response to requests from attorneys for the state and for the U.S. Department of Justice, the 8th Circuit Court in March granted a petition for a rehearing and vacated its previous opinion and judgment.
In Wednesday's 8th Circuit panel decision, the the panel of three judges -- with a dissent from one judge -- found that the old consent decrees were related to discrimination within each school district.
"These constitutional violations have nothing to do with inter-district school transfers -- and thus neither do the consent decrees that resolved the claims," the panel wrote in the Wednesday order. "Accordingly, the school districts cannot point to a 'section of the consent decree' that the 2017 amendments [to the school choice law] had 'an actual effect on.' Nor can they explain how the modifications at issue targeted 'a vestige' of discrimination."
The panel found that U.S. District Judge Susan O. Hickey in her orders exempting the districts from participating in School Choice Act transfers expanded the scope of federal court supervision of the districts' desegregation efforts "without an underlying constitutional violation to justify such supervision."
"The district court impermissibly expanded the decrees to impose new terms outside the intended agreement of the parties," the panel wrote and then added: "Courts may not, under the guise of modifications, impose entirely new injunctive relief."
The court also said,"Because no vestige of discrimination traces to inter-district school transfers the district court abused its discretion in expanding the consent decrees to prohibit such transfers."
In a statement released to the Camden News, Whitney Moore the lawyer representing Camden Fairview stated," CFSD is disappointed in the ruling issued by the Eighth Circuit this morning regarding our exemption from participation in school choice.
"We continue to believe that the district court acted within its discretion when it found that segregative inter-district transfers negatively impacted CFSD and that changes in Arkansas school choice laws allowed for modification of our consent decree to prohibit that segregative movement. Our previous court orders sought to address all forms of racial discrimination and segregation, and CFSD has worked hard for many years to comply with those orders.
"We are evaluating today's opinion and potential options for retaining our school choice exemption for the 2022-23 school year and after. Due to the deadlines set forth in the current school choice law, today's decision does not impact transfers during the 2021-22 school year."
Moore also added that transfers to Harmony Grove School District are governed by a separate order and were not the subject of this litigation.
The 8th Circuit Panel was made up of Circuit Judges Ralph R. Erickson of Fargo, South Dakota; Jonathan A. Kobes of Sioux Falls, S.D., and Michael Joseph Melloy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Melloy dissented from the majority opinion.
Camden News News Editor Bradly Gill contributed to this story.