The Kentucky House of Representatives has been busy with education policy recently. In February, they passed House Bill 151, which would allow parents the choice of sending their child to the school closest to their house (as long as it is in the district in which they reside). If approved by the Senate, H.B. 151 would have the potential to override school assignment boundaries throughout the state. As reported by the Washington Post and The Century Foundation, H.B. 151 would also have the potential to dismantle a long-standing school integration plan in Jefferson County, which encompasses Louisville.
At face value, it seems reasonable that children be allowed to attend the school closest to their home, creating neighborhood schools. Most traditional school assignment plans are designed around this concept, with school capacity and population density also playing a role. The challenge, even for schools with traditional attendance zones, is that school zones could basically disappear if parents claim the right to attend the school closest to their zone. In Lexington, for example, a student in the southern part of the Breckinridge ES zone (see below) may live closer to Liberty ES than some of the students in the Liberty ES zone, so students who previously would have attended Liberty ES may no longer have a place there (if Liberty ES reached capacity). The bill has provisions so that students currently attending a particular school may not be displaced by other students, but incoming students, whether kindergarteners or families who just moved in, may not be afforded the same benefit as families who have been in the neighborhood longer. This legislation has the potential to uproot many school districts’ carefully-crafted and often-controversial assignment policies, creating uncertainty for families and challenges in assigning students to schools in a manner that accounts for multiple student and demographic factors.
Perhaps the larger reason that this bill is garnering national attention is the effect that it will have on the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) district, which encompasses Louisville. JCPS has a school integration plan that combines parental preference with balanced diversity. Parents of elementary school students may choose between neighborhood schools in their geographic cluster or magnet schools that serve the entire district; 90 percent receive their first choice. Middle and high school students are assigned to schools with boundaries designed to maximize diversity. JCPS also offers district-wide magnet programs, which would not be affected by H.B. 151. The district’s school assignments also try to minimize transportation time for students. The result of this school assignment plan is that many students are not attending the school closest to home. JCPS analyzed H.B. 151 and concluded that half of their students do not attend the school closest to their home, which means that there is great potential for the shifting of students across schools in the future (current students would not be affected but we can assume that the results would be similar for future cohorts). Only 38 percent of current middle school and 34 percent of current elementary school students live close enough to their current school to be assigned to it, if school assignments were made on proximity alone.
JCPS also analyzed the effect the bill would have on school diversity. By their projections, the number of students attending high-poverty and/or high-minority schools (greater than 80 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunch or non-white students) could increase under H.B. 151. The number of schools that fail to meet the district’s diversity goals, which are based on parental education, income, and race, could increase from 12 to 40. Currently, all schools serve at least some highly disadvantaged students; under the new requirements, up to 45 schools may have zero of these students. JCPS’s current plan provides choice, especially to low-income parents who often live in low-income neighborhoods, to attend schools that are diverse instead of segregated. The new requirements could mean that schools in more affluent neighborhoods reach capacity with just neighborhood students, pushing out lower income students who would have transferred in under the current plan. Such choices would not be surprising, given research from North Carolina and Washington, D.C. that shows that geographic proximity is highly important to parents in selecting a school. This would essentially allow for a dual system of haves and have-nots.
We know that schools of concentrated poverty have a negative impact on student achievement. A Stanford researcher even found that the most powerful factor correlated with the racial achievement gap is the disproportionate exposure of black and Latino students to students in poverty in their schools. Neighborhood-based school assignments often have the effect of widening the gap between students of color and their white peers by creating more socioeconomically segregated schools. Additionally, all students benefit from diverse schools through improved cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.
Many school choice advocates say that choice is a way out of “failing schools” for low-income and minority students. However, allowing parents to choose the school closest to them may exacerbate the school segregation already put in place by housing patterns. It could also create uncertainty across the state as local districts would have to recreate school assignment policies. Louisville has worked to create a system that provides for parental choice and diversity based on the needs and preferences of their local community; we would hate to see choice erode for the families who can’t afford to live near more affluent schools.