LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday that calls for neighborhood schools and would force major changes as to how Jefferson County Public Schools assigns its students.

After a two-hour heated debate on the House floor in which many Democrats raised concern over whether the bill impeded the state's home rule statute and whether Kentucky's largest school district would re-segregate, House Bill 151 passed with a vote of 59-37.

The bill, which calls for Kentucky school districts to permit a student to enroll in the school nearest to their home starting with the 2019-20 year, now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it could be discussed and passed as early as next week.

“It was a privilege of mine to carry this vital piece of legislation, and I was fortunate to have the assistance of many parents, educators, and community leaders,” said Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R- Louisville, who sponsored the bill. “This bill speaks to what should be the guiding principle of our education system: parental choice."

HB 151 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.

At times, the debate had lawmakers reflecting back to segregated schools in Louisville.  

"This is a shameful and shocking day," said Rep. Darryl Owens, D- Louisville, calling the legislation "dangerous" and "discriminatory." 

A letter was sent to lawmakers earlier in the day by Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, who urged them to vote the bill down.

"Under the guise of 'neighborhood schools' they seek to take us back to the land of alleged separate but equal schools, which was held unconstitutional by
the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954," Cunningham said. "They now attempt to take us back by bringing forth and using language very like what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found unconstitutional in the 1970’s."

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, said she knew the bill would pass because of the "continuance of war that's been started" against Louisville by Gov. Matt Bevin and other Republican lawmakers. She added: "We will remember in 2018."

Following the vote, Chris Brady, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education, tweeted: "Well hello 1975."

"HB 151 takes our community backwards," Brady said, adding that when school board candidates "run on a neighborhood schools platform, they do not get elected."

Superintendent Donna Hargens testified against the bill before it passed the House Education Committee last week, telling lawmakers: "This legislation will have a significant impact on our school district. 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.

During a work session with the Jefferson County Board of Education on Tuesday, district officials gave board members and the public a better idea of how this bill would impact student assignment:

They said if the bill passed as currently written, only about half of all JCPS high school students, about 38 percent of middle school students and about 34 percent of elementary school students live close enough to their current school that they would have been accepted there.

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."

Board member Diane Porter said this plan would mean "some significant blows" to her district, which includes most of the west end. 

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 committee last week.

Reporter Antoinette "Toni" Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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