Issue October 4, 2011

Philosophical friction

The political undercurrent of the ongoing JCPS student assignment saga

Perhaps you’ve seen the ad for Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams set on a Jefferson County Public School bus. In it, kids junked out on Red Bull are draped over windows, like zombies who’ve fallen asleep trying to break free.

It is 33 seconds of pandering to Louisville parents upset with JCPS’s system of assigning children to schools in an effort to maintain racial and socio-economic diversity — a plan that can result in bus rides of an hour or more.

Before a press conference on the recent Kentucky Court of Appeals decision to strike that plan, the Williams’ spot earned a few chuckles from attorney Teddy Gordon. By his side sat Chris Fell, one of the parents who sued JCPS because his kindergartner was not allowed to attend the school nearest their home and subsequently sat on a bus for hours everyday.

The ad may be over the top, but the topic of school diversity has long been politicized. Tracy K’Meyer, a history professor at University of Louisville, is finishing a book on desegregation in Jefferson County. She says the issue has always been divisive, but given the polarizing political climate, middle ground may be increasingly hard to achieve.

“Government intervention in issues of race and poverty is more frowned upon now and has been since the Reagan era,” she says. As government-sponsored intervention in issues of race becomes more scrutinized, K’Meyer likens views on school desegregation to affirmative action: “It must be bad.”

It’s a sentiment K’Meyer says is reflected in the court system.

“It’s pretty clear for anyone who pays attention to these issues that the sympathy in the courts is toward rolling back desegregation plans,” she says.

In this case, Gordon successfully argued that a Kentucky statute that says parents can “enroll” their child at the closest school also allows for their child to attend that same school. It’s a matter of semantics cloaked in another ideological victory. In 2007, Gordon won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared Jefferson County’s assignment plan unconstitutional because it relied too heavily on race. The assignment plan was rewritten to focus on socio-economics to achieve diversity.

At the press briefing, Gordon urged JCPS against appealing the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court (they are), citing millions in taxpayer dollars wasted. He and Fell also strongly advocated for neighborhood schools.

That concept worries the district, the NAACP, as well as K’Meyer, a parent of two JCPS students. She points to Charlotte, N.C., a similar metropolitan school district that adopted neighborhood schools, ultimately leading to a more segregated student population, divided by race and poverty.

“I don’t want to see that happen in Louisville,” she says. “Economically and racially diverse schools improve outcomes.”

A National Academy of Education study compared social science research filed as part of the 2007 Supreme Court case involving JCPS. It found evidence of a positive correlation between racial diversity and academic achievement, though this was not a guarantee.

“We have ideological battles with well-intentioned people who believe diversity is a good cause and well-intentioned people who believe kids should have quick access (to schools) and not be inconvenienced,” says Dewey Hensley, former principal of J.B. Atkinson Academy in Portland.

During his five-year tenure as principal, 97 percent of his elementary school students were on the free or reduced lunch program. Atkinson was among Kentucky’s lowest performers.

Against the odds, he drastically improved student performance. So Hensley finds himself somewhere in the middle of this tug-of-war. He believes in the educational and social benefits of diversity but says given the right tools even poor schools can succeed. And he remembers blurry-eyed children who endured daily cross-county commutes.

What makes this issue even more difficult, he says, is that a half-century ago the injustices of segregation were blatant. Now, classrooms blend races, schools are being held accountable for every student. Yet inequalities persist.

“This notion of making everyone happy has to go out the window,” he says.

Hensley supports recommendations under review by JCPS that would chop up elementary school clusters, creating 13 rather than the current six. If done right, he says, the clusters could hold pockets of diversity and achieve shorter ride times.

A series of community feedback sessions on these recommendations are under way. However, all this may be in vain should the Kentucky Supreme Court uphold the decision that parents have the right to send their kids to the closest school.

On a Monday night, in a stuffy Ballard High School cafeteria, a group of roughly 100 parents and citizens file in for a feedback session, a mix of black, white, gray-haired and wrinkle-free. An employee with the JCPS student assignment office says the sessions have attracted a vocal crowd.

Not surprisingly, many on this night are skeptical and fatigued with the way JCPS assigns students. A few resent long bus rides and the fact that their elementary-aged kids must switch buses at hectic depots.

Parents hold what look like remote controls that let them vote in on-the-spot surveys. While about half say the district should “strengthen its awareness of the commitment to integration,” the rest either disagree or are unsure.

And a large majority, 69 percent, still have too many questions to stand behind the recommendations.

For her book on desegregation, K’Meyer listened to 100 oral history interviews with students, teachers and advocates dating back to the 1970s. The positive accounts of mandated school diversity struck her. But like many highly politicized debates, it’s the negative stories that echo loudest.

“People who are pleased don’t write the comments on the C-J website,” she says. “You get parents whose kids ride the bus for an hour.” According to a JCPS spokesperson, 19 percent of the 66,000 bused students have a ride that averages more than 45 minutes.

As for attorney Teddy Gordon, he says there’s no room for compromise on the student assignment plan. Fell agrees. And at the end of their press conference, Fell says come November he’ll officially announce his campaign for a seat on the Jefferson County Board of Education.