By: Junis L. Baldon
State legislators who sought to maintain segregated schools during Louisville’s busing crisis in the 1970s may finally get their wish. Just forty-two years too late. In 1975, after being reversed by a federal appeals court, federal judge James Gordon entered a decree desegregating Louisville public schools. Almost immediately, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the passage of an anti-busing amendment to the federal constitution by overwhelming margins in the House (84 to 8) and Senate (26 to 9). The following year, the General Assembly, again with overwhelming support, passed a bill that amended KRS 159.070 to state: “Within the appropriate school district attendance area, parents or legal guardians shall be permitted to enroll their children in the public school nearest their home.”
That language in KRS 159.070 has had a tortured history. Right after the statute’s enactment, a federal appeals court found the statute unconstitutional because the drafters of the law sought to circumvent the Louisville desegregation decree. A second federal court, this time in Lexington, found the statute unconstitutional because it would interfere with a desegregation decree governing Lexington public schools. The law was then invalidated by the Kentucky Supreme Court as part of a court decision that found all of Kentucky’s education laws unconstitutional, but quietly reenacted by the General Assembly as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. After a federal court lifted the Louisville desegregation decree in 2000, twelve years later, a group of parents tried to use the statute to challenge Jefferson County Public Schools’ (“JCPS”) student assignment plan. The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected that challenge and avoided constitutional problems with the statute by saying that the word “enroll” permitted parents to enroll their children in the school district at the school nearest to their homes, not enroll in the school nearest to their homes.
Enter HB 151. This bill, sponsored by GOP Representatives Kevin Bratcher of Louisville and Addia Wuchner of Florence, effectively seeks to reverse the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision and ensure real neighborhood schools. HB 151 would amend KRS 159.070 to state: “Within the appropriate school district attendance area, parents or legal guardians shall be permitted to enroll for attendance their children in the public school nearest their home.” But HB 151 does more. First, it would permit children to attend the school nearest to their homes unless the nearby school is a traditional, magnet, or charter school. Second, it expresses a preference for some students over others. For example, even if students live in the same neighborhood, those who live closest to the school get first dibs on attendance. If Sara lives ten steps closer to a middle school than Sam, then under HB 151, Sara gets priority for admission. So, if the closest school to a student is over capacity, or if demand exceeds the school’s capacity, then those students losing out will have priority for the next closest school to their homes.
But in Louisville, neighborhood schools mean segregated schools. 2010 census data shows that Louisville has high levels of residential segregation. Eastern Jefferson County, for instance, is 90.4% white and 4.7% African-American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. By contrast, West Louisville is 80% African-American and 17% white. And even within West Louisville, there is a line of demarcation between the white-dominated neighborhood of Portland and the rest of West Louisville. Only Louisville’s South End shows any racial diversity, with a racial composition of 56% white and 34% African-American. But again, there are clear lines of separation even in that supposedly integrated area. Thus, if Louisville’s schools follow the residential patterns of the city, it is clear that we are on our way back to segregated schools.
While parents and legislators complain about travel times, representatives of JCPS have said that neighborhood schools would cost Louisville taxpayers an additional $22 million in transportation costs over a five year period. The school district has also argued that it would create a logistical nightmare because HB 151 essentially grandfathers in students who already attend a certain school. There’s also the issue of decreased socioeconomic and racial diversity at Louisville schools. While JCPS’s student assignment plan has its flaws and detractors, Louisville has been nationally recognized for the success of its diversity efforts. A story in The Atlantic contrasted Louisville’s culture and relative economic stability to the depression that has engulfed Detroit, and concluded that Louisville’s reluctant embrace of diversity and busing during the 1970s saved it from Detroit’s fate, a city that took the opposite route. Voters in Louisville have consistently rejected school board candidates opposed to efforts to maintain socioeconomic and racial diversity. And further, study upon study has concluded that diversity leads to better educational outcomes for students of all races and backgrounds. Indeed, even some of the most politically conservative and strident opponents of affirmative action are starting to see that racial isolation in our secondary schools is a bad thing.
Although the proponents of HB 151 are hesitant to admit it, neighborhood schools—especially in Kentucky—have a historical racial connotation that they want to ignore. And while neighborhood schools sound good in theory to some people, there’s been no analysis by HB 151’s supporters of the extraordinary expense and social costs Louisville taxpayers will incur. In fact, Representative Bratcher has publicly admitted that he hasn’t calculated how much compliance with HB 151 will cost taxpayers. Nor has he tried to deal with the tremendous amount of academic research regarding the benefits of diversity. Instead, Representative Bratcher has cited his own experience with busing in the 1970s and having to attend a historically black school 45 minutes away from his home as his primary basis for sponsoring HB 151. And that’s exactly why HB 151 should be on dubious legal and political ground. History matters.