LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Moore High School is less than two miles away from Nathan Gocke’s home in Highview.

But when it came time to choose last year, the 14-year-old looked past Moore and instead applied to Atherton High School in the Highlands, where he was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program.

Because of Jefferson County Public Schools’ student assignment plan, Atherton is able to reserve space for its popular magnet program, which draws students from all over the county.

In fact, more than half of the 1,473 students at Atherton don’t live anywhere near the school. Like Nathan, they come from areas ranging from west Louisville, to Pleasure Ridge Park, to Prospect.

But Atherton’s remarkable geographic diversity would be endangered under a controversial “neighborhood schools” bill that is quickly moving through the Republican-controlled state legislature.

With a few exceptions, the bill gives parents a right to send their children to the school nearest their home, or to the next-closest school if there are capacity problems. 

If every student in proximity to Atherton chose to exercise that right, the school wouldn’t have space for programs like the one that drew Nathan, according to a JCPS analysis.

“I would have to get another job and send my kids to private school,” said Amy Gocke, Nathan’s mother. “The schools located the closest to our home are not an option for us.”

House Bill 151, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, a Republican from Fern Creek, moves to the state Senate this week after passing the House by a 59-37 margin on Thursday.

"This bill does one simple thing -- it gives a child the first chance to go to a neighborhood school, if that's what they choose," Bratcher said. "It does not mandate anything."

Gov. Matt Bevin, a Louisville Republican who has been sharply critical of JCPS, presumably would support the bill, though his spokespeople did not respond last week when asked if he would sign it.

'It forces a lot of hard choices'

The bill would upend JCPS’ more-than-40-year-old policy of assigning students to schools to ensure racial diversity.

That policy began in 1975 with a court order to desegregate schools. It continues today under a formula that seeks balance according to the racial, economic and educational achievement characteristics of the areas where students live.

Middle and high school students are guaranteed a spot in the school of their attendance zone, called a "resides" area. But those zones are not necessarily contiguous and often combine students from far-flung areas of the county.

Elementary students, meanwhile, are given a "cluster" of schools from which to choose, but are not guaranteed a spot in the school closest to their home.

HB 151, on the other hand, permits a student to enroll in the school nearest to their home starting with the 2019-20 year. If there are more children opting to go to their closest school than the school can accommodate, then the seats are awarded to those who live closer to the school over those who live father away.

Current students would not be forced to change schools because of the new rules. The bill also exempts special schools such as magnets, which have competitive admission; traditional schools, whose seats are awarded by lottery; and alternative schools for children with behavioral issues. It also exempts charter schools, should state lawmakers authorize them in Kentucky.

An analysis by the JCPS transportation department shows the wide-ranging consequences of HB 151: only about half of the current 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 the right to attend it under the proposed law.

Because Jefferson County remains largely segregated in housing based on race and incomes, district officials say the policy would greatly reduce diversity in schools.

But beyond that, the bill could shake-up the district’s schools and attendance patterns in ways that are less obvious.

Some schools would be swamped with kids based on proximity, while other schools – even in older, built-out areas – might be candidates for closure or wholesale reinvention because they would have a tiny number of kids to accommodate under HB 151.

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

For example, only 46 children live close enough to Chenoweth Elementary in St. Matthews that they’d have the right to attend that school, according to the JCPS analysis. That figure even takes into account those kids for whom Chenoweth might be the second- or third-closest school.

Only 167 students live close enough to Dunn Elementary, in the Indian Hills area, that they would have the right to attend Dunn.

Top ten elementary schools whose capacity exceeds closest-school population 

School Address Capacity Closest-school kids Under capacity
McFerran Elementary 1900 S. Seventh Street, 40208 1,491 584 -907
Chenoweth Elementary 3622 Brownsboro Road, 40207 737 46 -691
Norton Elementary 8101 Brownsboro Road, 40241 858 255 -603
Dunn Elementary 2010 Rudy Lane, 40207 737 167 -570
Cochran Elementary 500 W. Gaulbert Avenue, 40208 684 131 -553
Farmer Elementary 6405 Gellhaus Lane, 40299 836 303 -533
Coral Ridge Elementary 10608 National Turnpike, 40118 557 113 -444
Cochrane Elementary 2511 Tregaron Avenue, 40299 601 173 -428
Watson Lane Elem. 7201 Watson Lane, 40272 797 371 -426
Cane Run Elementary 3951 Cane Run Road, 40211 674 250 -424

That would leave over 1,200 seats at Chenoweth and Dunn. Nearby parents could ask to send their kids there, but they would not have the right to, leaving JCPS to fill the seats at its discretion.

That raises some questions: Would JCPS make Dunn and Chenoweth an East End refuge for poor and minority children from west Louisville? Or, would it consolidate Chenoweth and Dunn with Wilder, another nearby school?

"We aren't really sure how we would handle this," said Mike Raisor, JCPS chief operations officer. "It forces a lot of hard choices."

Another example: only 323 students would have the right to attend the new Norton Commons Elementary, leaving space for over 500 more students.

That scenario raises other questions: Would JCPS consolidate Norton Commons with nearby Zachary Taylor Elementary, which would have 57 open seats after accommodating all “closest school” students? Or would the district combine it with Chancey Elementary, which could not accommodate all of its proximity-based population?

At the other end of the spectrum, more than 500 students whose closest school is Watterson Elementary in Hikes Point would have to go elsewhere, because the school would fill up with other children who live closer to Watterson.

Hundreds of other children whose closest schools are King or Maupin elementary (West Louisville), Rutherford or Semple elementary (South Louisville), and Englehard Elementary (Old Louisville) would have to find seats somewhere else because there would not be space for them at those schools.

Top ten elementary schools whose closest-school population exceeds capacity:

School Address Capacity Closest-school kids Over capacity
Watterson Elementary 3900 Breckenridge Lane, 40218 562 1,087 525
King Elementary 4325 Vermont Avenue, 40211 562 945 383
Rutherford Elementary 301 Southland Boulevard, 40214 674 1,033 359
Chancey Elementary 4301 Murphy Lane, 40241 781 1,047 266
Maupin Elementary 1312 Catalpa Street, 40211 748 998 250
Semple Elementary 724 Denmark Street, 40215 640 848 208
Engelhard Elementary 1004 S. First Street, 40203 587 772 185
Frayser Elementary 1230 Larchmont Avenue, 40215 635 820 185
Price Elementary 5001 Garden Green Way, 40218 611 784 173
Kenwood Elementary 7420 Justan Avenue, 40214 587 686 99

The district’s simulation shows the cascading effect of the policy even resulting in 49 students whose closest school is Rangeland Elementary in Newburg ultimately ending up at Hawthorne Elementary in the Highlands because it was the fifth-closest school to their home.

Those kids would be unable to attend the four other closest schools because of capacity limits and the prioritizing of space based on each child's distance from the school.

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

To be sure, the district’s analysis has limitations. It assumes every one of its current students – with the exception of those in magnet schools, which would remain unaffected under HB 151 – would choose to go to the school closest to his or her home.

While some surely would not, the bill nonetheless would force JCPS to accommodate those “closest school” choices first before honoring other requests.

The analysis also can’t predict how many students would choose to exercise a newfound right to go to a nearby school instead of a private or magnet school, Raisor said.

Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican whose district includes Middletown, said he knows of parents who are unable to get their children into Crosby – JCPS’ most crowded middle school – while more than 400 of Crosby’s over 1,200 students come from outside the immediate area.

“There are kids who live in my school area, that their parents are driven to send their kids to private schools. They’re driven to send their kids on a bus to go to another public school, and that ain’t right,” Nemes said on the House floor Thursday. “It’s not right that somebody who lives within a stone’s throw of a school has to go to a private school or clear across town because we’re busing kids in.”

Crowding aside, no kids who live in Crosby’s “resides” area have been denied admittance to the school, Raisor said. All JCPS middle and high school students are guaranteed places in their “resides” area schools, he said.

However, east Louisville schools like Crosby, Carrithers and Kammerer have non-contiguous satellite “resides” areas that allow west Louisville children to be bused to those schools. And some kids, Crosby may be their closest school, but they may nonetheless live in a different resides area.

Shifting and unpredictable attendance areas?

Defending the bill on the House floor on Feb. 23, Bratcher said he has one “common sense” goal, that parents should not be denied the right to send their children to the closest public school.

“You just wouldn’t believe how many people are cheering me on on this thing... They just can’t believe they can’t go to a school that’s down the street from them,” Bratcher said.

But during a town hall meeting held Saturday at the Fern Creek Library with Bratcher and three other elected officials, tensions flared over the bill, with some in attendance worried it will push back on diversity and re-segregate schools.

“We cannot go back prior to 1975 in Jefferson County," said concerned parent Amy Shir, who lives in eastern Jefferson County. "We have to have integrated schools."

For decades, suburban parents and real estate agents have groused about how in Jefferson County – unlike typical school districts – school assignments aren’t guaranteed based on the location of your home, at least at the elementary school level.

HB 151 attempts to force that “neighborhood schools” model on JCPS over the objection of the district’s elected school board.

But, as JCPS officials say the bill’s mandate to prioritize seats based on proximity to a school may not, in fact, create the predictability that some parents have long desired.

That's because in a typical “neighborhood schools” district, the school board is allowed to draw attendance boundaries around schools, and those boundary lines allow parents to accurately predict what school their children would attend based on their address, Raisor said.

“What makes this so challenging for JCPS is that HB 151 does not allow the creation of attendance zones because it simply gives students a right to attend the closest, or next closest, school,” Raisor said.

In other words, if you want your third grader to go to Stopher Elementary School – a popular East End elementary – it might not be sufficient to buy a house in Lake Forest or Middletown.

While Stopher may be the closest school to your home, the question under HB 151 is whether there are 100-125 other third graders who might live closer to Stopher than yours. Short of moving across the street from the school, there is no way to be sure.

“You’ve got shifting attendance boundaries, year by year, based on the number of 5-year-olds in proximity to a school,” Raisor said.

In fact, the JCPS analysis shows 84 students for whom Stopher is the closest school would have to go elsewhere, assuming the other 836 students who live closer would exercise their right to attend Stopher.

In that case, it would almost certainly mean the 14 students who today attend Stopher from areas west of I-65 like Shively and Cailfornia would not be able to go to that school.

In an interview Friday, Bratcher said he didn’t understand the issue around attendance boundaries, which he said amounts to “splitting hairs.”

He added that JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens told members of the House Education Committee on Feb. 16 that HB 151 would “increase predictability and stability for families” compared to JCPS’ current student assignment plan.

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

'We have a very good chance to pass it'

As the bill moves to the Senate, JCPS officials remain hopeful that the policy can be stopped or altered.

“We feel there is still a chance to turn this thing around,” Jonathan Lowe, the district’s director of strategy, told WDRB last week.

But the Senate, which has long been controlled by Republicans, has passed versions of the “neighborhood schools” bill three times in the last decade, according to Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Dan Seum, a Republican from Fairdale.

"I think this bill is wonderful bill," said Seum, who has been the sponsor of the Senate bills in the past. "Rep. Bratcher is from Jefferson County, he understands what has been going on. We’ve been doing the same thing over and over again for 30-40 years. It’s time for some change."

He added that there is a "very good chance" the bill will pass the Senate again this year.

Seum said "it may be a struggle for JCPS" to implement the bill, but "they have two years to do so."

He added that the district would have to update lawmakers on its preparations for HB 151 in 2018. 

"If there are any major problems, it can be addressed then," Seum said.

Sen. Mike Wilson, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, could not be reached for comment last week, but a spokesman for the Senate Republicans said Friday that Wilson had not had a chance to review the bill.

Amy Gocke, the Atheron parent from Highview, hopes for a different outcome.

While her son Nathan would be grandfathered and allowed to stay at Atherton, his younger sister, Lexie, would not likely be able to get a seat when she starts high school a year later, Gocke predicted.

"We are very concerned," she said. "We would no longer have a choice."

You can reach reporter Toni Konz at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter and reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822 or @christopherotts on Twitter.

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