Kentucky children could attend school closest to home under bill passed by House

State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville.
State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville. Legislative Research Commission

Few education issues in Lexington ignite passion more than where students are assigned to go to school.

House Bill 151, which passed in the Kentucky House Thursday after debate about its potential effects in Louisville, would also affect Fayette County and other districts by requiring school districts to let children go to the school nearest their home starting in 2019-20, unless the school is a magnet school or is overcrowded. If the school is full, the school district would give the child priority to go to the next closest school.

Parents may enroll their child for attendance in a public school other than the nearest school with permission of the school district.

Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, sponsored the bill, which passed 59-37 and is aimed at Jefferson County Schools. State Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, voted for the bill. But Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives from Fayette County, including George Brown, Kelly Flood and Ruth Ann Palumbo, voted against it. The bill still has to get the approval of the Kentucky Senate.

Fayette County in 2015 redrew attendance boundaries for the first time in more than a decade in anticipation of the opening of two new elementary schools last fall and a new high school in the fall of 2017.

Although achieving socioeconomic balance was one of the guiding principles for the redistricting process, the proposed plan did not make a lot of progress on that front.

Former school board chairman John Price, who died last year, said at the time of the redistricting that he thought the committee and board members did the best they could. Many Lexington neighborhoods are not diverse, and most parents have said they want their children to attend the closest school to their home, he said. The ultimate focus of Fayette’s redistricting effort was to allow children to attend the school closest to their home.

Of almost 40,000 students in the district, 5,108 were affected by the redistricting proposal.

Of those, 1,688 would be moving to the new schools.

Families in Fayette County can also request that their children go to a school other than where they are assigned.

Fayette County Superintendent Manny Caulk said on Thursday night he was monitoring HB 151 as well as other education-related bills closely as they work through the legislative process.

“It would be premature for us to comment on HB 151 at this time,” Caulk said.

The Courier-Journal on Thursday reported that some Jefferson County lawmakers in the House decried HB 151 as a proposal that could segregate schools in a city that already has racial and economic divisions in terms of housing patterns. The newspaper said Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, saw it as an attempt to turn back the clock on desegregation, calling it “shameful and shocking.”

Because of the massive resistance to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the end to segregated schools, the federal justice department mandated numerous desegregation orders throughout the South. These orders — expansive and often controversial attempts to right the wrongs of slavery and segregation — first came under attack in the Reagan administration, and the battles over them continued into the 2000s.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Louisville's desegregation plan in a 5-4 decision, rejecting the idea that race should be used to make school assignments. Justice Anthony Kennedy, while agreeing with some of the majority opinion, left some room for schools to use race to ensure diversity. He specifically noted that school boards could pursue diversity in other ways, including site selection of schools, drawing attendance zones according to demographics, and allocating resources for special programs.

In 2000, Jefferson County was released from its federal desegregation plan, but officials chose to keep a standard of having 15 percent and 20 percent minorities in schools in order to prevent resegregation.

In 2003, Crystal Meredith sued the district after her kindergartner son was denied transfer to two schools closer to her home because of racial balance issues. Meredith and her son, Josh McDonald, are white.

The Courier-Journal reported that for elementary schools, Jefferson County Public Schools now bases student assignment on “clusters” of schools, with students allowed to apply to any school within their geographic cluster. That school district makes placement decisions based on several factors, including whether a school is a student’s first choice, whether the family lives in a school’s area, whether a sibling attends the same school, and the diversity index assigned to the family’s neighborhood.

Proponents of the bill have said that the legislation would prevent students from having long bus rides and that families should have a choice in where their children go to school.

The Louisville branch of the NAACP condemned Bratcher’s bill in a letter, according to The Courier-Journal.

“Under the guise of ‘neighborhood schools’ they seek to take us back to the land of alleged separate but equal schools, which was held unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954,” branch president Raoul Cunningham wrote.

House Bill 151 now goes to the state Senate. State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, a member of the Senate Education Committee that could hear the bill, said he wanted to review the legislation before commenting.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears