The major news story this week was a Kentucky bill (HB151), passed by the state House of Representatives, that has been described as the “death of integration.” The language of the bill is simple: it would “permit a student to enroll in the school nearest to their home,” with a few minor exceptions (see great summary here). Although it would apply to all public school districts in the state, it’s impact would perhaps be most detrimental in Jefferson County Public Schools (home to Louisville), which – up until this point at least – has withstood major challenges to an integration effort that spans decades. For anyone who’s not familiar, here’s the short background:
- Like many public school districts, JCPS was let out from under its desegregation orders in 2000.
- Nonetheless, the school board chose to keep its integration plan in place, which assigned students based on parent choice, location and race to ensure that schools don’t become segregated.
- That system was famously struck down in 2007 by the Supreme Court in Meredith v. Jefferson County School Board
- So, the school board revised its system. Parents rank school preferences within a “cluster,” designed to maintain diversity according to race, but also other factors like income and parental educational attainment.
- The revised system was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court in 2012, against parent complaints that their children had a right to attend the school closest to their home. The new bill essentially writes into law the argument that was rejected in that case.
Across news coverage (see links below), there’s a familiar tension between two ways of framing public education: as an individual right vs. a social good. Proponents claim the bill would make things more convenient for them – their children can get to and from school more easily, they could attend more school meetings etc. It’s troubling to me that these claims are put on par with the broader social purpose of public education – of students learning from and communicating with peers from different backgrounds. This is the same argument made by Nikole Hannah-Jones repeatedly, but perhaps most prominently in an NPR podcast earlier this year: “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.”
Research is on our side here. For one, we have at least a century of evidence that separate is not equal in public education. So, that should be considered when creating a law that would resegregate schools. And, this law would definitely do that. From the Courier-Journal article:
- “The Academy @ Shawnee’s high school population, for instance, could change from 58 percent non-white to 90 percent under this bill, while Meyzeek Middle’s non-white population could increase by more than 20 percentage points to 77 percent non-white, according to the district’s projections. Highland Middle’s non-white population could drop from nearly 60 percent to just under a quarter, according to the district’s simulation.”
And, from the Washington Post article:
- “Twelve schools now fall short of the district’s standard for enrollment diversity. If the neighborhood schools bill passes, the district predicts that the total will climb to 40.”
- “The district has found that children in poor areas who attend mixed-income schools outperform neighbors who go to high-poverty schools.”
Similarly, research raises serious doubts about the school meetings argument. Again from the Courier-Journal article:
- “But Tracy K’Meyer, a history professor at the University of Louisville who wrote a 2013 book on JCPS’ desegregation efforts, said studies have shown that parent involvement doesn’t necessarily increase with neighborhood schools and education outcomes decline in schools with high numbers of low-income students.”
This just means that, in a system based exclusively on individual rights, some individuals – in this case, children – will win and others will lose. Why should that be okay?
And, it’s not at all the case that the current system in JCPS eliminates parental choice entirely. It’s still a major factor in the school assignment process. According to the Washington Post article, for example, “Ninety percent of incoming kindergartners are assigned their first-choice cluster school.”
Another widely held belief that holds all of this in place, of course, is the notion that structural racism doesn’t exist in public education. Here’s a few excerpts from a maddening National Review piece:
- “Look: There is no segregation in Louisville or anywhere else in the country, and there is no threat of it coming back. There is not a single segregated public school, because segregation means separating children by law because of race, and everyone knows that is illegal and wrong.”
- “It’s the proponents of “desegregation” who insist that skin color should decide what a child’s educational choices should be.”
Those are actual lines from the article, though I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. The “skin color” comment maybe bothers me the most – to imply that’s all race is, that there aren’t centuries of hateful and systematic discrimination against people because of race. In an earlier post, I wrote about how white people have the privilege of forgetting about this, which then helps to maintain their privilege further. So, here it is again.
There are other troubling aspects of the debate about the Kentucky law – the argument about saving on transportation costs (which is not accurate and also not more important than the education of young people), the GOP legislature infringing on the local control of the JCPS school board, the complexity of school assignment based on proximity (which may lead to more uncertainty for parents). But, the issues above are the ones I found most salient. I’ll keep track of updates on the blog. In the meantime, let me know what I’m missing or if you see it differently.
And, here’s all the links, both to the Kentucky stories as well as other school (de)segregation news this week:
- Washington Post: “GOP bill could dismantle one of nation’s most robust school desegregation efforts”
- Courier-Journal: “Critics fear bill would resegregate JCPS”
- The Slot (Jezebel): “The GOP-controlled Kentucky legislature takes on desegregation.”
- Lexington Herald-Leader: “Kentucky children could attend school closest to home under bill passed by House”
- The National Review: “A ‘Threat’ to ‘Desegregation’? Hardly”
- Washington Post Answer Sheet: “FYI, Alabama’s constitution still calls for ‘separate schools for white and colored children’”
- Macon Telegraph: “School integration is best solution to inequality, event keynote speaker says”
- Valdosta Daily Times: “Little Rock historic site remembers civil rights showdown” (Awful title, IMO)