Revised neighborhood schools bill would 'shake up' JCPS student - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Revised neighborhood schools bill would 'shake up' JCPS student assignment plan

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Parents wait for their children to get off a JCPS school bus in November 2016 (WDRB News) Parents wait for their children to get off a JCPS school bus in November 2016 (WDRB News)
Rep. Attica Scott voted against HB 151. Rep. Attica Scott voted against HB 151.

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- The newest version of a Louisville lawmaker's bill calling for neighborhood schools passed the House education committee in Frankfort on Thursday. 

The bill, which now moves on to the full house, would force major changes as to how Jefferson County Public Schools assigns its students. It passed committee with an 11-4 vote. 

A committee substitute to House Bill 151, which Rep. Kevin Bratcher introduced during a special-called House Education Committee meeting, calls for Kentucky school districts to permit a student to enroll in the school nearest to their home starting with the 2019-20 year.

The bill allows for certain exceptions, including cases in which the school closest to a child's home has academic or skill prerequisites -- such as a magnet school, or was designated as a traditional school by the local district as of the 2016-17 year. 

It further states that if the number of children living in an attendance area exceeds the capacity of a school, the children residing the shortest travel distance from the school shall be given first priority in assignment and that if that school exceeds the capacity, then the resident student shall enroll in and attend the next closest school to where they reside.

It adds that no child shall be displaced "in order to permit the attendance of another child."

Right now, JCPS students don't currently have that assurance because the district assigns and places students according to a formula to ensure racial and socioeconomic diversity in its schools

"A school in one's community should be the one a parent has the right to send their child to," Bratcher said, adding that "it would be completely up to the parent, they would not have to take advantage of this."

Bratcher said that while his bill would impact the entire state, "Jefferson County would be the most affected."

That's because JCPS is no longer under a federal court order to desegregate its schools and this law would supersede the district's student assignment plan, which currently uses an algorithm to create diversity within its schools, while also providing choices for parents and students.

Superintendent Donna Hargens, who says she along with several board members have been having ongoing conversations with Bratcher about the bill, testified against it on Thursday.

"This legislation will have a significant impact on our school district," she told lawmakers. "It would dramatically alter the JCPS student assignment plan."

Hargens added that while the bill could increase predictability and stability for families, it would "decrease choice, equity and diversity."

"As a result, we believe that the bill would have a negative impact on student learning and widening of achievement gaps," she said.

Linda Duncan, a school board member who has represented south Louisville on the Jefferson County Board of Education since 2006, says the bill would "turn us upside down and shake up the entire district."

"There is an assumption that there will be space available at the closest school or the next closest school," she said. "One of the concerns I have is that the next closest school may not be anywhere close to their neighborhood."

Duncan added that district officials have indicated that JCPS is eight elementary schools short of being able to have neighborhood schools because of how the population has shifted in Louisville.

"Some kids would get a space near them, other kids will be denied," she said. "That is not equal treatment."

Bratcher says districts have two years to get ready for this.

"There is plenty of time," he said, adding that if passed, the Interim Joint Committee on Education shall be presented testimony from at least two districts during in 2018 on the status of implementation, in case there are any issues. 

Bratcher says he has met with Hargens and other district officials "several times" to address concerns they have over his bill.

"They (JCPS) believe that diversity is more important than location," Bratcher said. "We have a fundamental disagreement on that."

Bratcher says he is not against diversity in Louisville schools, but says there has been "no noticeable improvement" in the achievement gap that exists -- and has increased -- among black and white students in JCPS. 

Tammy Berlin, vice president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, testified against the bill, saying "It will harm our students."

"We know that's not your intent or the intent of the bill, but it will be the outcome so please, please do not pass this bill," she pleaded. 

Bratcher mentioned that the district's student assignment plan was mentioned as one of 32 findings outlined in Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt's letter to Hargens on Tuesday that calls for the state education department to conduct a management audit of JCPS.

Pruitt's letter stated that a "lack of evidences of district evaluations and processes to ensure that, over time, the student assignment plan and resulting transportation plan is providing opportunity, equity and access to all students."

Bratcher notes that neighborhood schools are "something that have been talked about for awhile" in Frankfort.

"There have been many discussions in Senate, but it has ignored by the House," Bratcher said. "Now that the House has changed leadership, the time to address it is here."

For four decades, JCPS has prided itself – and earned a national reputation – for racially integrated public schools, even in the face of the historic 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding the district from using race as the only factor in assigning students to schools.

When assigning students to schools, JCPS does not consider the race, household income or parental education of any individual student.

Instead, the county’s more than 500 U.S. Census blocks are grouped into three categories based on a combination of those factors, and schools are supposed to have an appropriate mix of students from the three categories.

But as the district’s student assignment plan has evolved over the last few years, a growing number of schools are slipping back into stark racial divisions, according to JCPS statistics reviewed by WDRB News.

In addition, Louisville's neighborhoods remain deeply segregated, according to 45 percent of Louisville residents live in "extreme segregation" according to a 2013 federally funded report, "Making Louisville Home For Us All, a 20-Year Action Plan for Fair Housing."

Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, who sits on the House Education Committee, voted against the bill.

"We have amazing segregation in Louisville, residential segregation and neighborhood schools will only add to our division," she said.

During the 2015-16 year, 90 percent of kindergarten students received their first choice of school, Martin said. She added that abut half of parents choose to send their child to school other than their neighborhood school.

Last year, Peter and Erika Massey, who live in the Hurstbourne subdivision off Shelbyville Road in eastern Jefferson County, applied for their oldest daughter to attend first grade at Lowe Elementary School, their neighborhood school.

"We signed up early, we picked her resides school as our first choice and declined bus service as we would drive her to Lowe," Peter Massey said. 

Four months later, they received a letter informing them that their daughter was being assigned to Roosevelt-Perry Elementary School, which is located 15 miles away near 15th and Broadway in west Louisville.

The Masseys appealed the district's assignment but were denied, so instead of sending their daughter to public school, they enrolled her at St. Margaret Mary School.

Bratcher says his bill would help families like the Masseys.

"It's time to try something else," he said. "Let's give parents the right to send their kids to a school closest to their home."

JCPS last overhauled its student assignment plan – including changing the way it defines diversity – for the 2012-13 academic year.

Last September, the Jefferson County Board of Education indicated it wanted to move forward with a detailed review of its plan, but there has been little talk since then. At the time, officials said any changes would not take effect until the start of the 2018-19 year.

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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U of L history professor warns against dismantling JCPS student assignment plan

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