Ky. judge pushes for neighborhood schools
This from the Houston Chronicle:
A Kentucky appeals court judge called Wednesday for the state's largest school district to end the "social experiment" of busing students for desegregation purposes and revert to neighborhood schools, stepping into what has become a high-profile political issue.
Judge Kelly Thompson said Jefferson County Public Schools should "get out of the courtroom" and abandon any plans that include having students ride school buses across the county.
"I'd like to ask that you concentrate on neighborhood schools and get out of the courtroom," Thompson said at the end of two hours of oral arguments over how the Louisville-based school district assigns students to schools. "You've got more litigation than any school district in the country."
Although Thompson made his opinion clear, the court did not rule Wednesday.
The hearing was an appeal of a 2010 decision by Jefferson Circuit Judge Irv Maze, who dismissed a lawsuit brought by parents who contend the school district must allow their children to attend the school nearest their home. Maze said state law clearly reserves for school boards the right to "determine what schools the students within the district attend."
The appeals court arguments are the latest volley in a long-running battle over how students in Louisville are assigned to schools. The school district voluntarily continued busing students to maintain diversity in the classroom after a judge lifted a mandatory busing order in 2000 after 25 years.
The court case and Thompson's comments also touch on a current political issue. State Senate President David Williams, a Republican running for governor against incumbent Democratic incumbent Steve Beshear, has pushed legislation to allow Louisville public school students attend the school closest to their homes. Williams has said the bill would empower parents frustrated by school assignment plans.
Opponents say the measure would erode local control of schools and would relegate many poor and minority students to underperforming schools.
The central legal issue is whether Kentucky's law, which says parents may "enroll" a student at the school closest to their home, also entitles that student to attend the same school.
Sheila Hiestand, one of three attorneys for the parents challenging the student assignment plan, told the judges that there's no practical difference between "enroll" and "attend" when it comes to the law.
"What we need to do is use our common sense and allow our children to grow in their communities," Hiestand said.
During arguments, there was little question which way Thompson and Judge Thomas Caperton were leaning. Judge Sara Combs, the widow of former Gov. Bert T. Combs, did not reveal her own opinion, but did not object when Thompson told Teddy Gordon, another of the attorneys for the parents, he could take the rare step and skip a rebuttal argument.
Thompson and Caperton repeatedly grilled the attorney for the school board, Byron Leet, about the necessity of putting students on buses for 90 minutes or more each day. Thompson noted that the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2007, struck down Jefferson County's student assignment plan because it called for each school to have between 15 and 50 percent minority students.
Since then, the board has adopted a plan aimed at diversity that keeps the 15 to 50 percent requirement, but no longer bases it strictly on the race of the students. It now also looks at factors such as economics and academic achievement.
"I'm concerned about an attitude ... of a school board that gives lip service to the courts," Thompson said. "You keep coming back with a 50 percent plan of quotas."
Leet told the judges that the high court decision dealt with placing students primarily on the basis of race, something the school board no longer does.
"No individual students are being treated differently based on their race under this plan," Leet said.
Caperton questioned the wisdom of taking students from areas of the city noted for low academic achievement and sending them across town to go to school.
"Rather than hire a teacher ... it's better to put them on a bus and ride them around for a few hours," Caperton said.
"Merely pouring money into a school will not achieve the desired result," Leet said.
After the hearing, Leet was hesitant to call the case a loss.
"I've been at this a little while," said Leet. "I think it's perilous business to predict what a judge will do in a particular case."
Gordon said he saw the judges' comments as good for his side.
"It was exactly what I've been saying for the last 11 years," Gordon said.