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.

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Raising the flag for integrated schools

I like everything about Courtney E. Martin’s new book “Learning in Public,” but what I like most is that it’s full of kid energy. It deals seriously with adult subjects – education, integration, race, class, the challenge of living “the white moral life” – but Martin’s young daughters and their friends fill up the pages, playing and learning together and reminding us of what this is all about.

Learning in Public” centers on the experience of having Martin’s older daughter, Maya, attend a public school in their Oakland, California, neighborhood. The title suggests two themes: Maya is learning in a public school. And Martin is learning the messy role of being a kind and responsible member of a racially integrated school community, with the public – the book’s readers — watching.

"Learning in Public" book cover

The neighborhood is historically Black and working-class, but it’s gentrifying, and Martin’s family is part of that. Her friends are mostly white, affluent and politically progressive, people who drive Priuses, eat organic food and support leftist causes. But in the elementary school down the street, called Emerson, most students are Black and most families are low-income.

Martin’s white neighbors profess to believe in public education, but many enroll their kids in a “progressive” private school where tuition is $29,000 or finagle their way into better-resourced public schools where only a handful of students are Black or poor. (Readers, does this sound familiar, if you live in a self-identified progressive community? Even if you don’t? I suspect it may). Martin and her husband eventually choose Emerson, never mind its low test scores and GreatSchools rating of 1 on a scale to 10.  

Martin feels the universal maternal urge of wanting what’s right for her daughter. But “most of all,” she writes, “I don’t want to live with the hypocrisy of claiming to care about equity but abandoning the kids with the least resources in my own city from day one. I want not that.”

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Hannah-Jones: Beliefs are not enough

Nikole Hannah-Jones had a blunt message for the largely well-educated and politically liberal audience that she addressed Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. Go home, she said. Look in the mirror. Reflect on the decisions you make about your child’s schooling.

Ask if they serve the common good or if they benefit your child at the expense of other children.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

“To believe in equality is not enough,” she said. “Your beliefs don’t help a single child.”

Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine writer and 2017 MacArthur genius award recipient, spoke to several hundred people in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in a lecture sponsored by several Indiana University organizations and the Indiana Coalition for Public Education.

She promised at the start that her talk would not be “uplifting.” It wasn’t. It was about tearing down the illusions of people who think they can in good conscience enroll their children in mostly white, low-poverty schools and avert their eyes from segregation that harms poor children and children of color.

“It’s not good enough to have a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard if you make decisions about your child that harm other children,” she said.

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