March 4, 2017; Washington Post
Is there a public school district superintendent or school board president who would not like to start their day reading this Washington Post description of their work?
White and black and poor and rich children share schools to a greater extent here than in most other large districts across the country, leading to friendships across the usual social divides and giving rise to what school officials say are stronger academic outcomes for disadvantaged students.
School officials in Louisville, Kentucky, should have had that pleasure Monday morning. Yet, in another example of the political tug-of war-over public education, members of the Kentucky legislature are trying to undo the policies that have made the district’s students thrive.
The district, which combines urban Louisville with parts of suburban Jefferson County, was formed during the tumultuous days of forced desegregation that followed the passage of federal civil rights laws. Even after the courts removed the requirement of forced busing to achieve integration, the Jefferson County school district remained committed to providing a working solution. By combining parental choice, a strong selection of magnet schools, and a stated policy of racial and economic balance, the district has maintained a stable, integrated reality. Parents have chosen to have their children bused to their schools of choice so that “fewer than 15 percent of students attend a school in which either the white or nonwhite student population exceeds three-quarters of total enrollment.”
The district’s commitment to racial diversity is clear. As with other districts that NPQ has looked at, learning in an integrated classroom benefits all students:
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Research shows that isolating poor children is an ill-advised strategy for schools looking to boost low-income learning. Jefferson schools still struggle with achievement gaps—61 percent of white elementary students are proficient or better in reading, compared with 31 percent of black students and 43 percent of Latino students. But the district has found that children in poor areas who attend mixed-income schools outperform neighbors who go to high-poverty schools.”
State Rep. Attica Scott, who is a graduate of the Louisville schools, described the meaning of the current approach to the Post. “It was this opportunity to be with kids who weren’t like me—to be able to develop those relationships and connections and to get to know each other” in ways that would not be possible without a structured approach to creating integrated schools.
Why change what seems to be a working approach to the real challenges of urban education? Because it is not honoring other expectations that some have for public education. For the legislators supporting a bill that would require Louisville public schools to do away with their commitment to integrated education, the higher value at stake is the ability for every student to attend his or her neighborhood school. State Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher told the WP that the legislation “aims to bring common sense to a system that is unfair to children who can’t get into schools around the corner or across the street from where they live.”
We have to look at what we’re giving up for desegregation. It’s harder for children in faraway schools to participate in extracurricular activities and for their parents to make it to PTA meetings and teacher conferences.
Is it only distance and logistics that makes neighborhood trump integration, as the Republicans’ bill wishes to do? Is this the sole factor pushing state legislators to step in to meddle with a local school district where most parents like things the way they are? Or is race the real issue?—Martin Levine