LOUISVILLE — A Kentucky appeals court judge called Wednesday for the state's largest school district to end the "social experiment" of busing students for desegregation purposes and revert to neighborhood schools, stepping into what has become a high-profile political issue.
Judge Kelly Thompson said Jefferson County Public Schools should "get out of the courtroom" and abandon any plans that include having students ride school buses across the county.
"I'd like to ask that you concentrate on neighborhood schools and get out of the courtroom," Thompson said at the end of two hours of oral arguments over how the Louisville-based school district assigns students to schools. "You've got more litigation than any school district in the country."
Although Thompson made his opinion clear, the court did not rule Wednesday.
The hearing was an appeal of a 2010 decision by Jefferson Circuit Judge Irv Maze, who dismissed a lawsuit brought by parents who contend the school district must allow their children to attend the school nearest their home. Maze said state law clearly reserves for school boards the right to "determine what schools the students within the district attend."
The appeals court arguments are the latest in a long debate about how students in Louisville are assigned to schools. The school district voluntarily continued busing students to maintain diversity in the classroom after a judge lifted a mandatory busing order in 2000 after 25 years.
The court case and Thompson's comments also touch on a current political issue. State Senate President David Williams, a Republican running for governor against incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear, has pushed legislation to let Louisville public school students attend the schools closest to their homes.
Opponents say the measure would erode local control of schools and would relegate many poor and minority students to subpar schools.
The central legal issue is whether Kentucky's law, which says parents may "enroll" a student at the school closest to their home, also entitles that student to attend the same school.
Sheila Hiestand, one attorney for the parents challenging the student assignment plan, told the judges that there's no practical difference between "enroll" and "attend" when it comes to the law.
Judge Thomas Caperton questioned the wisdom of taking students from areas of the city noted for low academic achievement and sending them across town: "Rather than hire a teacher ... it's better to put them on a bus and ride them around for a few hours."