State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress’ weekly column.

A federal judge’s ruling that struck down the Arkansas law that allowed students to transfer outside their home school districts is creating doubts for for thousands of students and their families about which school they will attend in the fall.

Legislative leaders are studying the effect of the ruling and discussing it with educators, because replacing the school transfer law has suddenly become a major issue to be resolved in the 2013 regular session.

The legal challenge was filed by parents of students in the Malvern School District, which is 60 percent white.  They wanted their children to transfer to the Magnet Cove School District, which is 95 percent white, but they were not allowed under a provision in the Arkansas Public School Choice Act of 1989 that prohibits transfers that could result in racial segregation.

Their lawsuit asked the federal judge to strike the specific language that prohibits transfers based on race.  They argued it was an unconstitutional violation of their rights because it prohibited their children’s school transfer only because they are white.

To the surprise of many, the judge ruled that the racial provision was so intertwined with all the other sections of the law that it was necessary to strike down the entire law. His ruling set off a flurry of appeals and legal requests for a delay in carrying out the ruling.

One of the odd consequences of the ruling was that the plaintiffs appealed even though technically the judge had ruled in their favor.  The plaintiffs,  the Malvern parents who wanted the racial provisions tossed out of the law, asked for a stay and served notice of appeal on the grounds that the ruling went farther than they had originally asked.

They did not want the entire school transfer law stricken from the books, they said in their appeal.  They only wanted to remove the specific provision that prohibits transfers on racial grounds.

A question that all parties have for the federal courts is how the ruling affects those students who in the past have transferred out of their home districts, and done so legally under the 1989 law that has been stricken. Will the ruling be retroactive and will those students have to return to their home districts?

According to the state Education Department, more than 13,000 students are attending school districts in which their families don’t live.  Attorneys in the case say that more than 15,000 students and their families may be affected.

If the ruling forces them to return to their home districts it will create budgetary and staffing problems for schools.  The schools that lose them may have to lay off teachers, while the schools that get them could have to increase class sizes or hire teachers at the 11th hour.

For legislators, especially those on the Senate and House Education Committees, the challenge in the 2013 regular session will be to write a new law that allows school transfers while at the same time does not promote re-segregation of schools.

The 1989 law was written to promote competition, under the presumption that when parents are allowed to remove their children from failing schools, the failing school will be pressured to do better.  Since 1989 several lawsuits challenging school transfer laws have been litigated in other states, and some have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In writing a new law, the Arkansas legislature must take into account the legal precedents established in those lawsuits.

–  State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress’ weekly column.