LITTLE ROCK – The legislature updated Arkansas school choice laws when it approved Act 754 of 2019 earlier this year.
One goal of the act is to eliminate possible confusion about what are termed “opportunity choice” options, which allow a student to transfer from a school that is failing academically.
For a long time the state’s “opportunity choice” law allowed student transfers from schools designated as being in academic distress.
But in 2017 the legislature approved Act 930, a far-reaching modernization of accountability standards. The act erased 40 pages of school standards and replaced them with more modern methods on how to assess the quality of local schools.
One of the changes made by Act 930 eliminated references to schools in academic distress. Instead, it referred to those schools as needing intensive “Level 5” support from the state Education Department.
To eliminate confusion caused by the deletion of references to schools in academic distress, earlier this year the legislature passed Act 754. It clarifies that opportunity choice is available to students who attend a school needing Level 5 support. It also allows transfers from schools with an “F” on school report cards.
Students who apply for a transfer under the opportunity choice option cannot be denied unless the receiving district has a lack of capacity. In effect, it must show that it would have to build a new classroom or hire a new teacher to comply with standards that limit classroom sizes.
Act 754 makes a minor change in the public school choice option, which is distinct from the opportunity choice option.
The public school choice option allows students to transfer outside the district in which they live, but with limitations. For example, districts may choose not to allow transfers when they are under court orders to desegregate.
The Education Department has named 11 districts this year that do not have to allow transfers under the Arkansas school choice law, because they are involved in desegregation cases. Six are in Garland County and two are in Union County.
Precision is necessary in school choice laws, due to their controversial nature. State funding of schools is based on enrollment, so a district can lose substantial sums of state aid when they lose students who choose to transfer to neighboring districts.
That is one reason for the 3 percent limit on the number of students who may transfer out of a district in a given year under the public school choice option.
The 3 percent limit does not apply to opportunity choice transfers from schools that are failing academically.
Act 754 changes a key reporting date, to better prevent possible disputes over funding. Under the new act, the 3 percent limit on transfers out of a district will no longer be calculated according to enrollment on October 15, but on October 1.
The newer date is better suited to the dates on which school districts calculate their enrollment. Essentially, the change is meant to avoid the possibility that two separate districts expect to receive state aid for the same student.