Bad news, good news in Louisville

I can’t decide whether to be disappointed or encouraged by the big education news out of Louisville this month. Both reactions seem appropriate.

It’s disappointing, certainly, that Jefferson County Public Schools have thrown in the towel on a nearly 50-year effort to desegregate schools in Louisville and the surrounding area. But it’s encouraging that the district’s new student assignment plan claims to prioritize helping Black and low-income students.

JCPS logo

In case you missed it – and the development inexplicably got almost zero news coverage outside of Louisville – the JCPS board voted unanimously to end an assignment system that bused some of the district’s 96,000 students away from their neighborhoods to promote socioeconomic diversity.

In its place, the board adopted a plan that will let all students – Black as well as white, poor as well as privileged – attend schools near where they live. The plan, created with guidance and eventual approval from the Black community, including the NAACP and an association of retired Black educators, also devotes more resources to schools in the city’s predominantly Black West End.

“Today can be a new beginning for JCPS. It can be a new beginning for Black children,” school board vice chairman Corrie Shull said, according to the Courier-Journal.

It’s bittersweet, because ntegration was hard-won in Louisville. Kentucky schools were racially segregated by state law from 1904 until the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Louisville schools stayed segregated in practice for another 20 years. In 1975, white mobs responded to court-ordered busing in Louisville by stoning cars, smashing store windows and burning school buses.

Eventually, integration was accepted, at least by the community at large. Louisville created a voluntary desegregation system, assigning students to schools to create racial balance, and it was often cited as a national model. But some white parents didn’t like the plan and sued. In the 2006 Parents Involved decision, the Supreme Court ruled that race-based desegregation in Louisville and Seattle was unconstitutional.

Louisville could have packed it in then. To the city’s credit, it didn’t. It retooled the plan to base students’ school assignments on family income and education, not race.

But, over time, flaws in the system grew, and support faded. The burden of desegregation fell on Black students, who were bused to diversify schools in largely white neighborhoods. White and privileged families mostly chose to send their children to nearby schools. Indefensibly, Black and low-income families generally didn’t have that option.

A 2021 Courier-Journal investigative series found Louisville schools were rapidly resegregating. “The majority of campuses in western Louisville are almost entirely Black and poor, while nearly all schools in the eastern portion of the county serve students who are mostly white and advantaged,” reporters Olivia Krauth and Mandy McLaren wrote.

Under the new student assignment system, approved June 1, more Black students are expected to attend schools near where they live, and that’s likely to lead to even more segregation. But the district will provide an extra $12 million per year for 10 years to 13 West End elementary schools. It will build a new middle school in the area and create a more equitable enrollment system for magnet schools. Teachers will be paid a premium to work in high-poverty schools.

That sounds promising, but we’ll see. For one thing, giving up on integration is a big deal. Research by University of California professor Rucker Johnson and others shows that integrated schools provide substantial benefits, both academic and social, for white students and students of color. For another, what happens when the Kentucky legislature decides Louisville schools should spend less money?

 “Implementation is what matters,” JCPS board member Shull said, according to the Courier-Journal. “We cannot drop the ball on this one.”

Ultimately, results matter. Will students be more successful? Will the new system restore trust? Louisville’s Black community will be watching. The rest of us should be watching too.

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