Stuck in the gate

Liam Julian

On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of floppy-hatted revelers will descend upon Churchill Downs to watch the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby. To witness this spectacle--the quaffing of sundry Mint Juleps (a delicious bit of Julep trivia, here), the scads of money wagered on the whims of equine beasts, the men clad in copious pink--is to witness something from another era. And for our purposes, it gives satisfactory reason to turn attention to Louisville's schools.

The Supreme Court is set to rule in the weeks ahead on whether the Jefferson County school district (Louisville and its suburbs) can continue its policy of using race to determine school assignments. To refresh:

After Brown v. Board of Education (1954) outlawed de jure school segregation, districts across the country began assigning students to campuses by race, which meant that lots of kids were bused across town to ensure proper classroom ratios. Jefferson County's desegregation program began in 1975. In 1991, however, the Supreme Court ruled that busing was no longer necessary and that individual districts could return to "neighborhood schooling" (assigning students to the schools closest to their homes) regardless of whether classrooms would become re-segregated.

But Louisville liked its integrated schools and opted to keep parts of the 1975 program in place. Jefferson County's current system allows parents to apply for the schools they want--92 percent get their first or second choice--and, according to the district's director of student assignment, race is only one of a number of factors used to determine placement.

As was bound to happen, however, someone didn't initially get the school she wanted and decided to sue. Plaintiff Crystal Meredith argues that by taking race into account, Jefferson County has sent up an unlawful quota system.

Just as horse racing seems likes something from another era, so too this bickering over the racial composition of the schools. That perception is exacerbated when one takes a closer look at Jefferson County's achievement data. District officials may trumpet their success in achieving a desegregated classroom, but they haven't done much to achieve desegregated academics.

Did white kids in Jefferson County schools make AYP in 2006 in math and reading? Yup: 63.1 percent hit the proficient mark in reading, 50.7 percent in math. How about black kids? Nope: only 38.6 percent were proficient in reading, and 22.5 percent in math. Looks like Louisville's schools are pretty segregated, after all.

And Kentucky has no charter-school law (one of just ten such states), meaning that while "choice" may exist in Louisville, low-income black kids have only the district schools to choose from--schools that are clearly not doing a good job teaching them. But, hey, at least they've got diversity.

Regardless of how one feels about using race in assigning students to schools, it's pretty clear that Jefferson County is fighting the wrong battle. Race shouldn't be the district's main concern; getting all its students to high academic levels should be. At the very least, the city could push state policymakers to pass some type of charter law so that students in Jefferson County have a real choice among public schools. Right now, to the best of Gadfly's knowledge, nobody in Frankfort is even thinking about bringing charter schools to the Blue Grass State--a real pity.

My Old Kentucky Home is a fine anthem. But in education, Kentucky would do well to start whistling some new tunes.

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