Against the odds, Louisville-Jefferson County is one of the most integrated school districts in the nation. The experiment in diversity, equity, and inclusion was not an easy one, facing the obstacles of riots, anti-busing rallies, and logistical challenges. Yet the trauma of the massive-resistance era school desegregation process has since transitioned to a success story—a point of pride for the city and surrounding areas. In 2000, when the court order to integrate the district formally ended, support for integration was so high that the district devised its own plan to ensure that it could maintain its diverse schools. Today, however, the biggest challenges to continued school integration in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) do not come from disgruntled local parents or from White Citizens Councils, but from the Kentucky State legislature.
Jefferson County currently assigns students to schools based upon both family preferences and demographic measures, including factors like race, income, and the educational attainment of adults in the community. Families of students fill out applications listing their preferences for certain schools, and county officials will try to honor those choices while also ensuring that parent choice will not create or exacerbate income and racial segregation. A bill currently—and quickly—making its way through the Kentucky statehouse threatens to dismantle this entire system. If passed and enacted, HB 151 requires that parents be allowed to enroll their child in the school closest to their home. For JCPS, that means that the district can no longer ensure that its schools are balanced. It also means that the doors to schools in affluent neighborhoods are likely to be shuttered to children who do not live nearby.
The Century Foundation frequently touts JCPS’s student assignment plan as an example of an effective and popular desegregation program. The original race-based desegregation plan began as a prime recipient of Klan and white supremacist outrage, prompting marches through downtown Louisville and the burning of several school buses. But only a few years after implementation, the desegregation plan had become a popular feature of a diverse community—so much so that the judge charged with oversight of the plan halted his supervision, instead trusting the community to embrace the mandate of the law. In 2007, when the Supreme Court limited how JCPS could use race in their assignment plans, the school board and the community rallied around the ideas that diverse schools benefit all children, and that a child’s neighborhood should not dictate her educational prospects. The current plan, developed in response to this lawsuit, was borne of this determination. While 95 percent of suburbanites opposed the 1970s compulsory busing plan for racial segregation, 89 percent of those polled in 2011 agreed that school guidelines should “ensure that students learn with students from different races and economic backgrounds.” Today, school board candidates that choose to run on a neighborhood schools platform are notoriously unsuccessful in Louisville and Jefferson County.
Any attempt to dismantle one of the nation’s leading school desegregation plans not only diminishes the ability of the local educators and officials to implement a student assignment method that is popular within the community, but also knowingly jeopardizes the principles defined Brown v. Board of Education. The sponsor of HB 151, state representative Kevin D. Bratcher, told the Washington Post’s Emma Brown that “we have to look at what we’re giving up for desegregation.” As reasons, he lists the additional costs of busing, and the difficulty of some parents to make it to parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings. But Bratcher fails to acknowledge that JCPS students and families have seen tangible benefits from being enrolled in racially and socioeconomically diverse environments. The proportion of students deemed college and career ready nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015, and 95 percent of the district’s high school juniors have reported feeling prepared to “work and live in diverse settings.” Nationally, students in integrated schools have higher average test scores, are more likely to enroll in college, have lower rates of bias and more comfort with diversity, feel more satisfaction in schools and elevated rates of self-confidence, and have elevated problem solving and critical thinking ability. Although some critics of integration allege that buses costs unnecessary taxpayer money, researchers have concluded that socioeconomic school integration is incredibly cost effective, yielding up to a five-fold return on investment when factoring in higher graduation rates and adult earnings.
JCPS’s current plan is a controlled choice plan that empowers parents to choose the pedagogically best option for their children, all the while preventing concentrations of poverty in schools. There is very little compulsory about the program, save for the fact that all parents must rank schools. Even after marrying the value of integration to the concept of choice, 90 percent of families receive their first choice school. When discussing the merits of his bill, Bratcher attempted to make a tenuous connection between HB 151 and the concept of “parental choice,” claiming that the latter should be a “guiding principle of our education system.” He argues for the bill not based on data, but rather an appeal to simple values: “a child should have the right to go to the school closest to his or her home—is what makes [HB 151] compelling. It is family friendly. It will help restore the fabric of our communities by allowing those who live nearest to a school to become more involved in how that school performs.” Requiring access to neighborhood schools, however, has little to do with expanding the choices of all parents, but rather has the effect of recreating the privilege of parents that already have superior options and opportunities. While facially neutral, this particular form of “choice” is only an attractive option for children whose parents can afford to live in neighborhoods next to their desired schools. Bratcher’s assertion assumes that these parents, having purchased themselves a slot in the neighborhood school through the housing market, deserve to enroll their children in the school closest to their home. Such a shift in protocol and philosophy would displace lower-income and minority children from across the city and county who rely on the current assignment plan to secure their ability to choose. And since neighborhoods too often remain segregated due to longstanding discriminatory policies and practices, policies that rely too heavily on school proximity to assign students to schools not only might unfairly advantage the already advantaged, but also risk re-institutionalizing school segregation. HB 151 prioritizes one form of school choice for some, while restricting choices for others.
Ironically, JCPS’s current student assignment plan incorporates many of the principles that traditional conservatives promote in education policy. It utilizes public school choice to expand parental options and encourage innovative school programs; it is controlled and administered by local officials while maintaining overwhelming community support; and it is, like desegregation programs around the country, fiscally sound as it produces a return on investment. Kentucky conservatives, typically skeptical of heavy-handed approaches to upend local plans, should be wary of any agenda that treats true equitable public school choice as an inconvenience while simultaneously pushing for separate and unequal schools.