Court upholds school districts' authority to assign students

LOUISVILLE — Students do not have a legal right to attend any school they choose, only to attend classes at a public school, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The high court's ruling upholds the plan currently in use by Louisville's school district about how students are assigned to schools across the county. Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson wrote that state law is clear that school districts across Kentucky have the authority to distribute students throughout the district based on what the school board sees as the best method.

At issue is whether parents can choose to send their children to their neighborhood school, or if assignment decisions are up to the school board. The school system examines a number of socioeconomic factors in assigning schools, meaning some students don't necessarily attend the school closest to their home. A group of parents had sued to change the school assignment system in the hope of sending their children to "neighborhood schools."

"Indeed, every single school board has to know its district and make decisions that are best suited to its student population," Abramson wrote for the five-member majority of the court.

Abramson wrote that the plaintiffs in the case may use the ballot box to change the plans.

Thursday's decision overturns a Kentucky Court of Appeals ruling tossing out the student assignment plan in the state's largest school district. The appeals court, in a divided opinion last year, ordered Jefferson County Public Schools to submit a new student assignment plan for the 2012-13 school year.

Justice Bill Cunningham, joined by Justice David Venters, dissented, saying the state law that requires enrolling a student in a school also gives the student the right to attend the school of their choice.

"As hard as I try, I cannot read the statute in any way other than in its plain meaning," Cunningham wrote. "And, if we ask a thousand people what is meant by the term 'enroll in,' I vouch that every single person would say it includes the right to attend."

Ben Jackey, a spokesman for Jefferson County Public Schools, said the decision affirms the authority of elected school boards to set student assignment policies.

Attorney Teddy Gordon, who led the group that challenged the Jefferson County system, said: "With each new plan, JCPS has inched closer to neighborhood schools, which they realize that parents want and children need to improve the horrendous education that our children are now getting," Gordon said.

The ruling is the latest marker in a long-running legal battle over how Jefferson County Public Schools assigns students to schools each year and, more broadly, whether the state should switch to allowing all students to attend the school nearest to their home.

The group that challenged the system said state law requires parents to have a student enroll in the nearest school to their home. Gordon contended that gave the student a legal right to also attend that school.

School district administrators, backed by the Kentucky School Boards Association, argued that the law only required enrollment in public schools, but did not automatically grant a right to attend that particular school.

"Indeed, 'enroll' and 'attend' are not synonymous," Abramson wrote.

The Jefferson County method of assigning students resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2007 barring schools from using race as the overriding factor in assigning students to schools.