State high court upholds Jefferson Co. student assignment plan
Reverses court of appeals decision that children can attend nearest school
This from the Courier-Journal (video):
The Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Jefferson County Public Schools’ ability to decide where to assign students to school, rejecting a legal challenge by parents who argued that state law gives their children the right to attend the nearest school.
The 5-2 ruling marks a defeat for advocates of neighborhood schools, who hoped that the court would toss out a controversial student-assignment system that aims to integrate schools by race, income and education levels in part by requiring some students to attend more distant schools.
“Kentucky public school students have no statutory right to attend a particular school,” the majority opinion said. “Student assignment within a school district in Kentucky is a matter that the legislature has committed to the sound discretion of the local school board.”
At issue was a state law that says “within the appropriate school district attendance area, parents or legal guardians shall be permitted to enroll their children in the public school nearest their home.” Passed in the 1970s as an attempt to sidestep a federal desegregation order, it was ruled unconstitutional while the order was place. But that order has since been lifted.
The parents suing the district contended that the term “enroll” also means their children have the right to attend the closest neighborhood school.
Byron Leet, an attorney for the district, has argued that the legislature removed the word “attend” from the statute in 1990 to ensure that districts were allowed to make assignment decisions — not, as plaintiffs had contended, to clean up redundant language.
“We are certainly grateful for Kentucky's highest court confirming that the trial court was absolutely correct in dismissing this lawsuit,” Leet said.
The ruling ends the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over student assignment.
Critics of the district’s plan, including attorney Teddy Gordon, who has represented legal challengers in most court cases, argue it requires unnecessarily long and expensive bus rides and hasn’t reduced racial achievement gaps.
“All the parents in this case were courageous to take on the school system, and even though they did not win this round, they have made JCPS turn the corner, away from the outdated social experiment of busing,” Gordon said, referring to recent changes the district has made to reduce bus-ride times.
When the case was argued before the state’s highest court in April, the district argued that a right to attend the nearest school would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement, with Leet saying that “because of where buildings are and populations aren't, everyone can't attend the closest school.”
The Jefferson County Teachers Association, the League of Women Voters, the Kentucky School Boards Association, Fayette County Schools and a handful of parents all joined amicus briefs on behalf of the school system.
They argued that giving parents a right to attend the closest school would put unreasonable burdens on districts. They said elected school boards should be able to make assignment decisions.
And some groups like the NAACP of Louisville argued that because local housing patterns remain economically and racially segregated in many areas, a ruling giving children the right to attend their nearest school would resegregate schools in a way that could create inequities.
The battle over student assignment dates back decades.
The school board has been making changes and adjustments to its student assignment plan since 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the district's decades-old desegregation policy, saying it relied too heavily on individual students' race when assigning them to schools.
The board adopted a new plan in 2008 that looked at race, income and education levels of students' neighborhoods when assigning children to schools.
But it has spent the past four years making changes to that plan after hearing numerous complaints from parents over long bus rides and the lack of access to neighborhood schools.
Student assignment has become an increasingly polarizing issue, as well as a political one. Several state politicians have incorporated it into their campaigns, including last year's Republican gubernatorial candidate, Sen. David Williams.
A new version of the district's student assignment plan took effect in elementary schools this fall. The new system classifies the district's 570 census areas using three categories based on income, minority population and average adult education.
Earlier this year, the board changed the plan again, voting to shake up the elementary clusters to further reduce the time students spend on buses. The latest change raises the number of elementary clusters for the 2013-14 school year from six to 13, but it also curtails the number of schools parents can choose from — from roughly 14 schools per cluster to six each.
More from the Herald-Leader:Some desegregation advocates fear that could undermine the district's integration efforts, particularly in western Louisville, by giving minority and low-income families fewer school choices.
The high court's ruling upholds the plan currently in use by Louisville's school district about how students are assigned to schools across the county. Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson wrote that state law is clear that school districts across Kentucky have the authority to distribute students throughout the district based on what the school board sees as the best method...
"Indeed, every single school board has to know its district and make decisions that are best suited to its student population," Abramson wrote for the five-member majority of the court.
Abramson wrote that the plaintiffs in the case may use the ballot box to change the plans...
Justice Bill Cunningham, joined by Justice David Venters, dissented, saying the state law that requires enrolling a student in a school also gives the student the right to attend the school of their choice.
"As hard as I try, I cannot read the statute in any way other than in its plain meaning," Cunningham wrote. "And, if we ask a thousand people what is meant by the term 'enroll in,' I vouch that every single person would say it includes the right to attend."