Suit Challenges Integration Plan in Louisville

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Six families have sued Kentucky's largest school district in federal court, claiming that its voluntary integration plan unfairly denied their children admission to a Louisville magnet school solely because they are black.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to magnet school admissions around the country, with the striking difference that in several recently publicized cases, the plaintiffs alleging unfair treatment have been white. ("Racial Preferences Challenged in Houston," April 30, 1997; "Without Court Orders, Schools Ponder How To Pursue Diversity," April 30, 1997; "Judge Rejects Race-Based Admissions to Va. Magnets," May 21, 1997.)

The suit filed April 22 in U.S. District Court in Louisville argues that the admissions policy in the Jefferson County schools violates the U.S. Constitution and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The suit names as defendants the Jefferson County school board and Superintendent Stephen W. Daeschner.

The families claim that Central High School, a magnet school that offers programs in business, law, politics, technology, and medicine, has turned down more than 800 black applicants in the last three years--even though it had space for them--because not enough white students had applied. This year, Central High has just 900 students, although it has a 1,400-student capacity.

"Jefferson County's student-assignment plan is failing," said Teddy B. Gordon, a Louisville lawyer who represents the six families. "It doesn't work. The only segment of the population that is declined admission [to Central High School] is African-American."

Mr. Gordon said the plaintiffs are asking the court to lift the limit on black students at the school and for actual and punitive damages up to $500,000.

The suit also claims that black students are denied an equal opportunity to enter the district's Advance Program for gifted high school students, which Mr. Gordon described as "overwhelmingly white." In 1995-96, according to the district, the program had a total enrollment of 6,756 students, but only 726, or 10.7 percent, of those students were black.

Parents Satisfied

Jefferson County mandates that each school have an enrollment that is between 15 percent and 50 percent black. About 33 percent of the district's students are African-American.

The 96,000-student district has a long history of integration efforts. In 1975, under a court order in a federal desegregation case, the largely black Louisville schools and largely white Jefferson County district merged. The continuing desegregation efforts led to the removal of court oversight in 1978, and the district has operated under a voluntary desegregation system ever since.

School officials and supporters of Jefferson County's current assignment plan acknowledge that the system is not perfect, but say it satisfies most black and white residents.

"The issue here is whether we're going to have desegregated schools, which parents--black, white, Hispanic, and Asian--and the community have said they are committed to," said Pat Todd, Jefferson County's director of student assignment. She cited a 1996 district survey showing that 87 percent of 1,200 parents surveyed "were satisfied or very satisfied" with the quality of education at their children's assigned schools and that 86 percent believed it was "important for their child to attend a desegregated school."

"Over time, we've continued to revise the plan to reflect community needs and parent and student interest," Ms. Todd said.

No Going Back

School board member Sam Corbett said last week that the lawsuit, though its focus is on Central High School, a historically black school in downtown Louisville, threatens the district's entire integration plan. "This could take us back to the [segregated] system that so many African-Americans fought so hard to get away from a generation ago," he said.

The suit is backed by a group called Citizens for Equitable Assignment to School Environment, which contends that black students are not faring well under the integration plan. Robert Douglas, a CEASE member who is a professor of pan-African studies and art history at the University of Louisville, said the group does not seek to abandon integration altogether.

"We're not trying to turn the clock back," he said. "We just want a system that's fair and equitable to African-American students."

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Web Resources
  • Title V, Part A of the Education Department's" Improving America's Schools Act of 1994 outlines the purpose of the Magnet Schools Assistance program.
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