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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Why Indiana has charter schools and Kentucky doesn’t

Indiana has one of the most active charter school programs in the nation while Kentucky has no charter schools, not even a law that allows them. How did that come about?

Sociologist Joe Johnston attributes the divergence to perceptions of public schools in the state’s biggest cities: negative for Indianapolis and generally positive for Louisville. And he traces those perceptions back to district boundary decisions made 40 years ago.

“It’s become so common to think of urban schools as failing, as these places that can’t possibly succeed,” he told me. “It’s interesting that, when you change the boundaries and have a different sort of school district, people can rally around that.”

Johnston, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University, conducted research on the history of charter school debates in Indiana and Kentucky as a graduate student at Indiana University, where he received a doctorate in May. He presented his study Saturday in Chicago at the 110th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Indiana adopted a charter school law in 2001 and has seen a rapid spread of charter schools. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools ranks it as one of the most charter-friendly states in the country. But Kentucky, which is contiguous with and politically and demographically similar to Indiana, is one of a handful of states without charter schools.

To understand how that came about, Johnston conducted a detailed comparison of education policy development in the two states from 2002-12. He analyzed 2,200 newspaper articles, gubernatorial and mayoral speeches and school reform group documents.

In Indiana, he shows, the push for charter schools was intimately tied to the argument that Indianapolis Public Schools were failing. This squares with what I saw as a reporter covering the Statehouse during the charter debates. Just like elsewhere across the country, charter schools were sold as an alternative to failing urban schools – specifically IPS.

But in Kentucky, there wasn’t the same sentiment that public schools in Louisville were under-performing; there was nothing like the hand-wringing and finger-pointing directed at IPS. While Indiana and other states rushed to create charter school programs, Kentucky held out.

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