Law & Courts

Louisville District Unveils New Student-Assignment Plan

By Catherine Gewertz — January 30, 2008 4 min read
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Seven months after its student-assignment plan was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Jefferson County, Ky., school district has proposed a new system that it hopes will maintain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in its schools without running afoul of the law.

District leaders, who spent months studying other districts’ student-assignment systems and consulting with experts, unveiled their proposal at a Jan. 29 school board meeting. Now they will gather public feedback on the proposal through community forums and surveys. They intend to present a final proposal to the school board by May, and implement it in 2009-10.

The changes in the school district, which includes Louisville, were prompted by the high court ruling last June in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, which barred districts from using race as the primary factor in assigning individual students to schools. The Seattle school district was the defendant in a companion case. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

Districts across the country have been re-evaluating the way they assign students to schools in the wake of the ruling. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a handbook last month to guide them in creating systems that comply with it.

Jefferson County’s new approach bases school assignments on the demographic makeup of the neighborhoods that students live in, rather than on characteristics of individual students.

It divides the county into two zones. In the “A” zone, adults are less educated and wealthy than the district average, and more likely to be members of minority groups. In the “B” zone, they are wealthier and more educated, and more likely to be white.

Each school would have to enroll from 15 percent to 50 percent of its students from Zone A. Parents would be given several options within clusters of elementary schools. The district floated two possibilities of how those clusters would be laid out and will decide that after hearing the public’s feedback.

Officials said they anticipated that 1,700 to 3,500 of the district’s 98,000 students would need to be reassigned, almost all at the elementary level.

Magnet Programs

Before the Supreme Court ruling, the district required most of its schools to keep black enrollment between 15 percent and 50 percent. The lawsuit that led to the decision last year was filed by the mother of a white student who was denied the right to transfer her son to a school nearer their home because of the effect his enrollment would have on the school’s racial balance.

In presenting the proposal to the school board, Superintendent Sheldon Berman said that because of the district’s residential patterns, it needs a systematic way to preserve the diversity that its official statement of beliefs lists among its most cherished values.

“Our neighborhoods remain racially segregated,” he said. “Many of our schools would become racially identifiable without a student-assignment plan that provides diversity.”

Pat Todd, Jefferson County’s student-assignment director, said existing magnet programs located in or near Zone A will prove key to the new system, because their specialized programming will offer parents an enrollment incentive.

Ted B. Gordon, the lawyer who represented the plaintiff in the lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court, issued a statement suggesting that the school district submit the proposal to U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II, who oversaw the case in the Louisville federal trial court.

“On the surface, without seeing a detailed review of the [district’s] proposed plan, this new student assignment seems to be unconstitutional,” the statement said.

Ms. Todd said that at least four lawyers for the district had attended all meetings in which the plan was being designed. She said Judge Heyburn told lawyers for both sides last summer that there was no need to submit the plan for review unless someone took legal action to object to it.

Stephen Neal, the president of the 5,500-member Jefferson County Teachers Association, said his chief worry had been that the new plan would require too many children to change schools. He said he was pleased with the district’s proposal because it would minimize such change.

“I believe the Supreme Court gave us a lemon, and they turned it into pretty good lemonade,” he said of the new plan’s authors.

Raoul Cunningham, the president of the Louisville NAACP, said he welcomed the plan as a crucial way to prepare students to thrive in an increasingly diverse global society. State Sen. Gerald A. Neal, a Louisville Democrat who has been active on education issues, said he hopes the plan preserves diversity. But he said he won’t be satisfied unless the district delivers more than that.

“My ultimate question is, how does this diversity model add to and promote achievement among the diverse groups?” he said. “It has to go hand in glove, diversity and achievement.”

Traci Priddy, the president of Louisville’s parent-teacher association, said that since the cluster patterns have not been decided, parents couldn’t tell whether and how they would affect their children.

“They’re frustrated we can’t get a better sense of this,” she said. “At the moment, that is everyone’s huge question: How will it affect my child?”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2008 edition of Education Week

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