Federal Court Rejects Right to Public School Choice

School Hall LockersThe Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Arkansas parents who fought for the right to enroll their children in a different public school.  The Court determined that public school parents do not have a fundamental right to decide where their children go to school, and are compelled to follow their local government’s school assignment.

Arkansas Lawsuit Seeks Public School Choice

Parents of white children in Blytheville, Arkansas filed a complaint in federal court requesting permission to move their children from their school district of jurisdiction to a neighboring school district which they argued “improved the education outcomes” of their kids.  They also argued that their petition would serve to “drive education reform” by ruling against a 1971 desegregation law that was designed to prohibit white families from taking their children out of predominantly black schools.  The parents submitted a request to the Blytheville School District for an exemption to the restriction but were denied the opportunity.

The parents argued that their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection were violated by the federal desegregation order, which is not in effect in every county in Arkansas.  Most school districts in Arkansas permit parents to participate in public school choice based on their desire to improve children’s educational opportunities, but Blytheville’s adherence to the 40-year-old federal provision was recently reinforced by a 2015 Arkansas law requiring all school districts under desegregation orders to review all school choice requests.  Although the desegregation order was declared closed in 1978, it is still on the books and enforced by Arkansas law.

The plaintiffs’ primary constitutional argument alleged that they had a right to choose their child’s public school and a desegregation mandate wrongfully denies them their opportunity to pursue the best educational interests for their children.

Federal Court Denies Right of Public School Choice

In a 2 – 1 decision the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that found no right for parents in a public school system to choose which where the child was educated.  Writing for the majority, Judge Lavenski R. Smith determined, “We agree with the district court that [no] relevant precedent support[s] the proposition that ‘a parent’s ability to choose where his or her child is educated within the public school system is a fundamental right or liberty. Accordingly, the appellants have failed to prove that they have a protected liberty interest.”

The majority opinion cited the fact that the white parents could have sent their children to a private or charter school, or even home-schooled if they felt the kids were not well served in the Blytheville School District.  Because the Court determined that the parents did not have a fundamental right, the majority accepted as rational the school district’s argument that it believed it was permitted by the desegregation mandate to deny the plaintiffs the opportunity to choose which public school they used.

Importance of Public School Choice Ruling

Although the ruling was applied specifically to the effect of an old federal desegregation order on a community in Arkansas, the 8th Circuit’s position on the right of parents to choose which public school their children attend could have an impact elsewhere in the legal community.  In the 8th Circuit, the right to choose public schools is not considered fundamental, giving states and school districts the opportunity set restriction on public school choice that will not be easy to challenge in federal court.

The ruling does not apply across the country, and may be limited in its effect by states that permit movement between public schools, but finding public school choice is not a fundamental right opens the door for future disagreements between parents and public school districts.

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