Local News Next Louisville

(Information for this story was also gathered by WFPL’s Gabe Bullard)

This evening, the Jefferson County Board of Education will begin scrutinizing its student assignment plan for elementary schools and decide when to proceed with a similar plan formulated for middle and high schools.

The board is reviewing its strategy for maintaining diversity across the state’s largest school district.

Click the player below to hear the story.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the Jefferson County Public Schools’ student assignment plan for diversifying schools was unconstitutional because it relied solely on race in determining where a child could or could not attend classes.              

Since then, the school board has drawn up new plans, one for elementary students, the other for middle and high school students. They consider other factors, including income and educational attainment in the household.

JCPS implemented the new elementary plan first, in the 2009-2010 academic year. This year, in response to parents’ complaints about long bus rides, the district added more than two dozen buses and made other adjustments.

But on the first day of school, there were problems. Several hundred bus riders didn’t get home until after 6:00pm, and about a dozen were out as late as 9:00pm.

At a press conference the next day, an apologetic Superintendent Sheldon Berman called it unacceptable, blaming most of the delays on the failure of two magnet school principals to correctly follow a new tagging system.  

Berman (pictured at right) said it had nothing to do with the student assignment plan, which he staunchly defended.   

“The diversity of this system is a key academic feature of this system. It’s what gives this system potential for quality, it’s what makes this system much better than systems in Atlanta or Chicago or Detroit. We have an excellent system and that system was built on the diversity that we’re able to establish. I can’t say it more strongly,” Berman said.

At the next school board meeting the following week, a parade of parents took to the microphone to vent their anger, about the first day of school problems specifically, and the assignment plan in general:

“This is just unacceptable, if I had been that incompetent and irresponsible with my children, I’d be facing charges, I’d be going to jail and I would lose custody of my children”

“Who doesn’t think that this needs to change? This is an election year, we know who’s going to be up for election in November.”

“Do you really think that a 98 or 99 percent success rate is good enough when you’re dealing with young children, many of whom are attending school for the first time?”

“She got off the bus at 6:30 and the first thing she said was ‘I like the school part, but I’m never getting on another bus.”

The new student assignment plan has also been challenged on other fronts. Attorney Ted Gordon (below),  who successfully argued the case before the high court, has since filed suits in federal and state courts on behalf of parents unhappy with their childrens’ school assignments.             

He says the JCPS diversity plan has failed to realize its goals of leveling the educational playing field for African-American youngsters.

“When I was at the Supreme Court of the United States, that’s what I said. There’s no educational improvement or I wouldn’t be here right now. It’s a total and complete waste,” Gordon said.

Recently, Kentucky Senate President David Williams and state Senator Dan Seum of Louisville prefiled legislation that would require the district to allow children to attend the school closest to their home.

Berman says such a law would result in chaos and cause the system to again be segregated. He says the JCPS diversity plan will survive.

“I believe that over time the argument will be won on the basis of the kind of quality that it provides the system as a whole, the experience it offers children all through the system, and the benefit it is for the
social and economic future of Jefferson County,” he said.

Tonight, the Jefferson County school board will discuss whether to delay implementation of the middle and high school student assignment plans to allow time to address transportation issue, and begin a review of
the elementary assignment plan implemented last year.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation."