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Racial equity in Louisville schools? Here's what education leaders say it would take

Investigation into JCPS' busing plan spurs response from more than a dozen Kentucky leaders who all agree: Something has to change

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Investigation into JCPS' busing plan spurs response from more than a dozen Kentucky leaders who all agree: Something has to change

Published Updated

Editor’s note: The community is talking about the findings from our February series “The Last Stop: The legacy of busing in Jefferson County Public Schools.” For more than 45 years, JCPS has bused students across town, sometimes far from their neighborhood, to desegregate classrooms. Now, the district plans to end a critical piece of that plan, saying it's unfair to families in the majority-Black West End. The series pulled back the curtain on busing and examined how a well-intentioned plan often diverted off course, leaving unintended consequences in its wake. It is part of The Courier Journal's yearlong examination into the racial reckoning confronting Louisville and Kentucky.

Louisville leaders agree: Jefferson County Public Schools' student assignment plan isn't working.

And the time for change is now.

The plan, which for decades has served as Jefferson County's tool for achieving integrated schools, came under new scrutiny in recent weeks following The Courier Journal's publication of "The Last Stop," a multipart series examining the legacy of busing in Louisville. 

The Courier Journal found the district's desegregation efforts were being unfairly borne by Black families in the West End who were being bused to predominantly white suburban schools.

Yet white families often were allowed to skirt the district's rules to attend schools closer to home.

Since the project published, The Courier Journal has interviewed more than a dozen people currently or previously in a position to influence Jefferson County's student assignment plan, including school board members, a former JCPS superintendent and two state education commissioners.

The Courier Journal also spoke to a group of retired Black administrators with firsthand experience with the assignment plan; a University of Kentucky professor who authored a book on the history of "polite racism" faced by Louisville's Black community; and the youngest daughter of Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in 1954's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ruled "separate but equal" schools are unconstitutional.

In Louisville, still reeling from last year's protests for racial justice after the slaying of Breonna Taylor, reactions to The Courier Journal's report were fraught with emotion, from indignation over how the assignment plan unduly burdened families living in the West End, to resignation over the district's ability to ever truly integrate without the buy-in of white and affluent families.

Not everyone agrees on the solutions.

Many voiced questions and expressed concerns about JCPS' new student assignment proposal, including a "dual resides" component that, while providing more choice to West End families, would lead to more racially isolated schools.

But there was also talk of hope — of seizing this moment of racial reckoning to accomplish lasting change and of a new generation of activists and leaders poised to see the mission through.

Their reactions are gathered below.

Aside from the group of retired administrators, each person was interviewed individually. Some comments have been edited for length or clarity.

Jefferson County Public Schools demonstrated how the return to in-person learning would be handled in the pandemic. Gutermuth Elementary third grade student Kenya Hannah wears her mask as she boards a school bus on Feb. 22, 2021.
Jefferson County Public Schools demonstrated how the return to in-person learning would be handled in the pandemic. Gutermuth Elementary third grade student Kenya Hannah wears her mask as she boards a school bus on Feb. 22, 2021. Pat McDonogh / Courier Journal

Facing the truth about Louisville's desegregation myth

Jefferson County's school integration efforts are often praised nationally, but as The Courier Journal reported, that reputation belied a racially inequitable reality: Louisville’s Black children have carried the brunt of those efforts, while carve-outs and loopholes in the system traditionally benefited white and affluent families.

Faye Owens, retired principal: "When I saw your articles, I just said, 'My God, at least somebody else is saying what we all believe.'"

Diane Porter, school board chairwoman: "It confirmed that equal access to educational opportunities is still not guaranteed for students that live in west Louisville."

Jason Glass, state education commissioner: "Jefferson County, is one of the systems that is often ballyhooed as a school integration success story. … (But) that's clearly a racist outcome."

James Craig, school board member: "(With the dual-resides proposal), we are removing the harm that those students have faced — the extra burden they've had to shoulder. But we're going to create some other issues."

David Jones Jr., former school board member: "What I worry about is that the nonurban core of Louisville is going to say, 'Oh, my God. Busing ended, and our schools are doing so much better.' They're going to blame it on the students. The voters are going to just say, 'You know, those students are incapable of being educated.'"

Chris Kolb, school board member: "You hear folks, say, 'Well, this is about giving parents more choice.' Well, that's great. But that's the sunny side of the equation. The other side is that this is going to lead to more segregation."

Linda Duncan, school board member: "So many African American groups, you can hear the distress in every question. 'How are they going to trick us?' … I can hear it in people's voices. It's like they think we're pulling something over on them."

Carletta Bell, retired principal and district administrator: "We know the games that have been played in the district. We have had to deal with the games our entire careers."

Raoul Cunningham, president of Louisville NAACP: "They have not maintained the diversity guidelines. I think that only helps to undergird the distrust. If you didn't do it this past go-around, what guarantees do we have that they can be carried out in the future?"

Chris Kolb: "We need a historical overview of what's happened and what those previous changes have led to. It's one thing to make a mistake. It's another thing to repeat a mistake."

Students file onto a school bus at Young Elementary on Nov. 25, 2013.
Students file onto a school bus at Young Elementary on Nov. 25, 2013. Aaron Borton/ Special to The Courier-Journal Aaron Borton/ Special to The Courier-Journal

Looking back at pivotal Supreme Court decision

Following the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down JCPS' race-based student assignment plan, the district, under then-Superintendent Sheldon Berman, re-engineered its methods to meet the court's rules while also maintaining diverse schools. Berman and a majority of the school board eventually would butt heads, leading to his resignation and, later, a consequential 2012 vote that would lead to the resegregation of the district's elementary schools. The 2012 changes, still in effect, make it easy for East End parents to avoid sending their children to schools in Black neighborhoods.

Sheldon Berman, JCPS superintendent, 2007-11: "People are articulate in supporting an integrated system. But when the rubber meets the road of actually providing that support. … That's a different question."

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association: "(Berman’s) plan was more fair, which meant that it involved busing both Black and white kids, both poor and less poor kids. And particularly the parents who were white, and the parents who were more affluent, weren't having it."

Linda Duncan: "When you didn't get the seat in your school that you wanted, because you had to give it up to make it diverse, that doesn't make people happy. Diversity was a very difficult sell."

Sheldon Berman: "Because it worked, it became more controversial. ... I had literally been asked to abandon the student assignment plan. And, frankly, that's not something I wanted on my resume. So I made that clear."

Brent McKim: "The school board just couldn't get away from Dr. Berman's work fast enough. … and Dr. Hargens was, I think, willing to do whatever suited the school board."

(Donna Hargens, superintendent of JCPS from 2011-17, did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Linda Duncan: "Diane (Porter) and I were both seeing a return to heavily Black schools and white schools. … But choice made people happy. Diversity was not going to be the priority. It was going to be choice."

Sheldon Berman: "The challenges that (JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio) faces are the challenges we faced, too. But what he faces is that, from 2012 to now, to reestablish an integrated school district would be a radical departure. … It is very difficult to overcome the undermining that has happened since 2012.”

Chris Kolb: "I'm super concerned (JCPS' diversity index measuring school integration) is not working as it was intended. But even more importantly, we're not even trying to make it work as intended."

Diane Porter: "There should be an annual evaluation. Because if we look at student assignment on an annual basis, it will allow us not to slip to the degree that things have slipped now. … Whatever happens with student assignment, we have to own it. It belongs to JCPS. It belongs to the board of education. It belongs to the superintendent."

Jefferson County Public Schools Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio waits to hear if he will get the job permanently at a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting. They voted unanimously to appoint the 46-year-old Pollio to the job. 
Feb. 11, 2018
Jefferson County Public Schools Acting Superintendent Marty Pollio waits to hear if he will get the job permanently at a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting. They voted unanimously to appoint the 46-year-old Pollio to the job. Feb. 11, 2018 David R. Lutman, Special to Courier Journal

The elephant in the room — white, well-off parents

Tracing the history of Jefferson County's student assignment system, The Courier Journal reported how, over time, pressure from white and affluent parents — including threats to withdraw their children from JCPS — led to policies often catering to families with more resources.

Chris Kolb: "A lot of white parents, especially more affluent white parents, are not as progressive or liberal as they think they are when it comes to this issue and their own children."

Jason Glass: "They know how to organize, know how to get vocal. They know how to win elections, and they know how to get what they want. So the balance Pollio has to walk is: How much of this can he do without triggering a reactionary force within his suburban community?"

Linda Duncan: "(People ask) 'Why is it we can force Black families to go places that we can't force white families?' You just can't. You couldn't. Because the white families had resources that they could use to find another way to educate their child."

James Craig: "You see it in this reopening debate. Families in one part of the county were vitriolic in their advocacy to get the buildings reopened. I've gotten a lot of emails of, 'I'm pulling my kid out. We're going to X private school, Y private school.'" 

Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Topeka: "They really think their children are somehow superior to (Black and brown) children. I don't know how we get around it unless we just say it."

George C. Wright, author of Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930: "When I think of polite racism, it's that people don't talk about these things. Or people say, 'If you bring these things up, you're causing trouble.'"

Chris Kolb: "Many people in the community allow perceptions that may or may not be accurate to guide their decision-making around what they consider to be a 'good school' or not."

Jason Glass: "These myths that Black and brown and poor kids can't survive and can't make it in an integrated school — they can. Then there's this myth that schools dumb things down and lessen the education standard for white and affluent kids that come into integrated schools. That's not true either."

Corrie Shull, school board member: "If East End families don't participate in the diversification of our classrooms, we're still doing a disservice. They never live under the same demands as minorities in this community, and (the new proposal) does nothing to put a demand on them."

Linda Duncan: "The community is perfectly accepting of natural diversity. If you live here, you're part of the community. Bam. It's that way. But this artificial diversity of bringing people in, in order to diversify … I don't think diversity should be forced. I’m beyond forcing."

Frayser Elementary School first graders dance to encourage the school's third, fourth and fifth graders to perform well during the 2017  KPREP tests. From left, Naiomo Omar, D'Asia Keen and Jada Porter. May 3, 2017.
Frayser Elementary School first graders dance to encourage the school's third, fourth and fifth graders to perform well during the 2017 KPREP tests. From left, Naiomo Omar, D'Asia Keen and Jada Porter. May 3, 2017. David R. Lutman/Special to The CJ

The real problem — the learning gap

Limited data obtained by The Courier Journal found some academic benefits to busing, but still not substantial enough to bridge double-digit achievement gaps between Black students and their white peers. JCPS' current student assignment proposal does not explicitly address its academic impact.

David Jones Jr.: "It's interesting to talk about the desegregation efforts and mechanics and everything. But the core underlying issue is that JCPS is not good at educating Black students. That — not busing — is the problem to be solved."

Raoul Cunningham: "When Brown (vs. Board of Topeka) was passed, we never anticipated the achievement gap. That was not the case then. We knew the segregation was wrong, and integration seemed to be the solution. Obviously, it was not. And now we’re faced with the gap." 

Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, president and CEO of Jefferson County's chamber of commerce: "We encourage JCPS to pursue solutions that combine choice and diversity to maximize student achievement. … Student success is a critical concern for our business community."

Wayne Lewis, state education commissioner, 2018-19: "We are talking about, 'What can we do to create maximum racial and ethnic diversity in schools?' and spending not nearly enough talk time talking about why all these poor Black kids in Louisville literally cannot read. … I would rather Black kids go to all-Black schools and learn how to read than to be in racially and ethnically diverse situations and walk out illiterate."

Diane Porter: "There needs to be research on the plan's effect on academic achievement. … If we don't not only acknowledge — but do something about it — then we are allowing our students to go forward when we know they're behind. And why aren't we intentionally and aggressively doing something about it?"

Wayne Lewis: "In the best-case scenario, we get both: Black kids learn how to read, and they have these really rich, diverse environments. But if you've got to choose one, I think it's crazy — absolutely crazy — that we wouldn't say teach them how to read first."

W.E.B. DuBois Academy ECE teacher Ellis Tarver talks with sixth grade student Jaden Parker in the hallway after an incident in the classroom. Oct. 17, 2019.
W.E.B. DuBois Academy ECE teacher Ellis Tarver talks with sixth grade student Jaden Parker in the hallway after an incident in the classroom. Oct. 17, 2019. Pat McDonogh/The Courier Journal

Can separate be equal?

Conversations around school integration and Black achievement have shifted over the past decade, with more educational leaders favoring high-quality, yet racially isolated schools, pointing to the success of all-Black urban charters. In JCPS, the boys and girls of color schools have emerged as examples. But many still point to the danger of resegregation, questioning whether sufficient resources will flow to nonwhite schools.

Wayne Lewis: "I've never heard anybody seriously make an argument on whether or not we should have ended legalized segregation. … But where there is legitimate disagreement is whether or not we should have further insisted that in schools that remain in Black communities, that those become where we pour resources and support into."

Raoul Cunningham: "Having been a product of a good educational system, although it was segregated, I know it can be equal with proper resources. But at this point, that has never happened."

David Jones Jr.: "If we resegregate, and west Louisville kids stay in west Louisville, it will be very surprising to me if resources flow there in the way they need to."

Chris Kolb: "It's almost impossible to provide enough resources over a long enough period of time to counteract the effects of highly concentrated poverty in schools."

SEE IT: A teacher, counselor and principal Rothel Farris on busing
Marty Pearl/Special to Courier Journal, Louisville Courier Journal

Freda Merriweather, retired principal and assistant superintendent: "The concern is that when you have Black schools and white schools, is the district going to pay enough attention to what happens in the Black schools?"

Faye Owens: "The new student assignment plan is like a skeleton. They say a lot, but there are no details. There's no timeline. We don’t know how much money."

Diane Porter: "Schools can be separate and be exceptional. But it has to have an intentional plan to get you there."

Linda Duncan: "This won't work unless we are willing to at least double our resources downtown." 

James Craig: "The high school that we're going to have to build in the West End, if this does pass, is going to have to be the best damn school in the state of Kentucky. They deserve it."

Brent McKim: "I would try to avoid taking anything away from another school. But as new resources become available, allocate more of the new resources where they're needed the most."

Raoul Cunningham: "When they talk about new programs, what guarantees are there that what they propose now will be in effect, say, a year from now? Or two years from now? What guarantees are there to the community?"

Carletta Bell: "If your choice is, 'Go where I know I'm not wanted, or stay where I don't have the resources,' you really do not have a choice."

Teacher Shellie Lipka works with Issac Lacy, Jayden Wright  and Kamiya Dailey in a class at Noe Middle School on March 6, 2020.
Teacher Shellie Lipka works with Issac Lacy, Jayden Wright and Kamiya Dailey in a class at Noe Middle School on March 6, 2020. Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal

What it will take to bring racial equity

The Jefferson County Board of Education passed a resolution last fall expressing how it would spend $54 million in new annual property tax revenue. But some remain skeptical about how — or if — those funds will work in tandem with potential changes to student assignment, citing the district's poor track-record in ensuring majority-Black and low-income schools have the resources they need to succeed.

Wayne Lewis: "Funding is important. … But the absolute most important school factor in determining whether or not kids get a high-quality education is whether they have a great teacher in that classroom."

Carletta Bell: "We have talked with many of the current principals serving our students, and they have gone the whole school year, some of them, without a certified teacher. … This is a problem that's been going on for years."

Wayne Lewis: "There are astronomical rates of teacher turnover."

Members of a group of retired Black JCPS principals and administrators say they are concerned about potential changes to the district's student assignment plan. March 19, 2021
Members of a group of retired Black JCPS principals and administrators say they are concerned about potential changes to the district's student assignment plan. March 19, 2021 Marty Pearl/Special to Courier Journal

Michelle Pennix, retired principal: "One of the things that's really pressing right now is, how do we get more Black teachers into the classrooms?"

Ira Ebbs, retired principal: "There are schools now that have maybe one Black teacher in the whole school." 

George C. Wright: "Anybody can be the role model and all of that. But if you've never seen an African-American male (teacher), what does that connote to you?"

Faye Owens: "It seems that inexperienced teachers are sent to the West End, and I'm concerned about that. We need experienced teachers, and we need teachers who are going to stay the long haul."

David Jones Jr.: "In most of the rest of the world, if you need to recruit people to stay in jobs where it's hard to keep people, you have to change the compensation or you have to change the working conditions."

Linda Duncan: "I don't think the bonus thing would work. It would have to be a whole different contract. We're whistling in the wind if we think we're going to draw established teachers who are comfortable where they are into West End schools without making real changes for them."

Brent McKim: "We're certainly open to (paying West End teachers more). But I think you have to ask yourself, is that the most effective way to spend money to make a difference in those schools?"

Diane Porter: "When will we talk about taking the class size down? And what does 'down' look like? What kind of numbers are we talking about?"

Linda Duncan: "That's how that teacher gets that relationship with that child, in that small setting. … If we limit the number of kids they are responsible for, it's much more attractive to teach there."

"We're marching for something bigger," said Savion Briggs, a 2020 Butler High School graduate. "Only way we're going to stop racism is solidarity. I shouldn't have to fear for my life just for the way I look." Briggs, among others, decided to wear their graduation caps as they marched and spoke for justice for Breonna Taylor in June 2020.
"We're marching for something bigger," said Savion Briggs, a 2020 Butler High School graduate. "Only way we're going to stop racism is solidarity. I shouldn't have to fear for my life just for the way I look." Briggs, among others, decided to wear their graduation caps as they marched and spoke for justice for Breonna Taylor in June 2020. Matt Stone/Courier Journal

Pressure from the outside for racial justice

Many The Courier Journal interviewed said they see an opportunity — given the surge of activism following the March 2020 fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor —  to rectify longstanding racial inequities in JCPS' student assignment plan.

Diane Porter: "What I have seen with Breonna Taylor is the level of emotion and the level, the level of, 'I'm tired. I want a lot better. I want better now.'"

David Jones Jr.: "We have a lot of young Louisvillians starting to come into power. In the protests in the summer, we did see a lot of young, Black and white people working together. … It's a new generation."

Sheldon Berman: "Hopefully, this movement now, the racial justice movement, equity movement in education, raises this issue."

Cheryl Brown Henderson: "You protest publicly to call attention to the issue. But the next step has to be then moving indoors, where the policy decisions are made. You have to have a seat at the table."

Wayne Lewis: "I'm hopeful that more people are willing to have an honest conversation about the fact that we have a very inequitable system — one that, without a doubt, for generations, if not created, helped to maintain almost an underclass of people in Louisville."

George Wright: "I'm not into indicting white folk or white folk having to stand up and say, 'I was a racist in this way, and now you all need to know that and whip me some.' No. How do we do some racial understanding? And what do we want our children to get out of this?"

Chris Kolb: "We really almost need some kind of community truth and reconciliation committee … about not only school segregation but the poor outcomes that JCPS has been getting for some of our most disadvantaged students."

Jason Glass: "It's not a problem that you solve, it's problem that you have to manage. And if you don't continuously manage, it snaps right back to where it was."

President-elect Joe Biden congratulates Vice President Kamala Harris with a fist bump after she was sworn in during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President-elect Joe Biden congratulates Vice President Kamala Harris with a fist bump after she was sworn in during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster, AP

Help from above? Will state and federal officials lend support?

As part of its 2018 settlement agreement with the Kentucky Department of Education, which spared JCPS from a state takeover, the district agreed to make changes to the assignment plan then-Commissioner Wayne Lewis said had "a distinct negative impact on the most vulnerable populations of JCPS students." 

Wayne Lewis: "I would never want to, from the state perspective, dictate what a student assignment plan would look like. Because if those types of things don't have community buy-in, it doesn't matter if it's the greatest plan since sliced bread. Without community buy-in, it can't work."

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio appeared before the Kentucky Board of Education with interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis to dismiss the appeals hearing that would determine whether the state would take over JCPS.
Aug. 29, 2018
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio appeared before the Kentucky Board of Education with interim Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis to dismiss the appeals hearing that would determine whether the state would take over JCPS. Aug. 29, 2018 Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal

Sheldon Berman: "We never had the real support of the Kentucky Department of Education. … Because we had some of the weakest schools in the state, it was never, 'Let's come in and provide some support for desegregation.' It was always negative."

Jason Glass: "We have a responsibility to address equity through funding. That's a major state focus. And then also, the things that I'm doing now. I'm standing up for Marty Pollio, saying, 'This is the right work. This person has the best interest of all the children in Jefferson County at heart, and you need to support him.'"

Known as an integration champion from his work leading Connecticut's schools, Miguel Cardona as the choice to lead the federal education department creates an opportunity, some said, for the Biden administration to throw its weight behind local integration efforts.

Sheldon Berman: "Almost everybody in the country has abandoned their desegregation plan. And unless there is a significant change at the U.S. Department of Education, it's very hard to maintain."

Richard Kahlenberg, school integration expert: "I think it's in Joe Biden’s interest to burnish his credentials on this issue. … If your central plank is, ‘I want to heal the soul of the country, and I want to unify the country,’ then I think there are few more important things to do than to find creative ways to bring kids of different backgrounds together." 

Sheldon Berman: "It's going to take accountability. It's going to take the states, the federal government saying, 'We're going to provide aid to school districts that are interested in desegregation."

Cheryl Brown Henderson: "Biden is from Delaware, where one of the (consolidated) Brown cases was from. He's well-aware of the history. Kamala Harris was a child bused to public school. We've not had a president and vice president that come with that legacy. So and then you add Cardona to the mix, we're in a unique position. We'll see what happens."

Where do changes to JCPS' student assignment plan stand?
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The Jefferson County Board of Education has not met formally to discuss student assignment since December. During that meeting, Superintendent Marty Pollio told board members a vote on his proposal was "not imminent," but he wanted to provide clarity so members are prepared "if we do this." In their Dec. 1 presentation to the board called "Your Schools, Your Choice: JCPS School Choice Proposal & Support Plan," district officials reviewed proposed changes, including:

  • Modifying middle and high school enrollment boundaries and offering a phased-in "dual resides" choice to west Louisville students beginning the 2022-23 school year.
  • Establishing a centralized lottery for magnet schools and programs and ending magnets' ability to "exit" students from those programs, beginning the 2021-22 school year. The district would also create diversity "targets" for its magnets.
  • Replicating popular magnets beginning 2022-23 and establishing the new W. Broadway elementary school as a music-based magnet. There is currently no further date scheduled to continue the discussion.

JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy told The Courier Journal changes to the student assignment plan remain a priority. But at least two board members will not vote in favor of Pollio's proposal as it currently stands, according to interviews with The Courier Journal. Though JCPS has proposed beginning some student assignment changes in time for the 2021-22 school year, that is highly unlikely, since families have already made their choices for the coming year.

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Mandy McLaren: 502-582-4525; mmclaren@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @mandy_mclaren

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