Updated: 12:04 p.m. ET March 26, 2017
Top supporters of the neighborhood schools bill say it won’t receive a vote during this year’s legislative session, which ends on March 30. The issue is expected to be discussed during legislative committee hearings in Louisville over the summer.
A couple of months ago, Shan’Taya Cowan got into Harvard.
“I just froze,” she remembers. The first word she read was, “Congratulations.” “And I didn’t know what to do because, it was never really an option for me.”
Cowan is one of the successes of a decades-old school busing program in Jefferson County, Kentucky. For the past four years, she’s gotten up early to take a bus to Louisville’s Fairdale High School, 15 miles from her home. She says she got a better education because of it.
“It’s just way easier to make a connection with people and, like, build a bond.” And, she adds, “you have a lot of people to help you along the way.”
For years, students in Louisville and its surrounding suburbs have been bused across the county as part of an effort to create more diverse schools in a highly-segregated city. It’s considered one of the most innovative integration efforts in the country.
But a bill moving through the Kentucky legislature could upend that system by giving priority assignments to students who live closest to schools.
The “neighborhood schools” bill would end the way Jefferson County makes those assignments now. For middle and high schools, the school board has drawn broad boundaries that include distant neighborhoods to promote diversity. And elementary students have to choose from a handful of schools based on their home addresses, some of which are far away.
But that current policy has its detractors. Louisville resident Peter Massey says his 7-year-old daughter wasn’t matched to the elementary school just three blocks from their home. Instead, she was assigned a poorly performing school on the other side of town.
“We didn’t want to put our — at the time — 6-year-old on a school bus for 45 to 50 minutes a day each way,” he says.
Massey and his wife ended up enrolling their daughter in a nearby Catholic school. Massey says they’re pleased with their decision, but he still wants the policy changed.
“To not be able to have that choice to go to school close to there and be involved in that and have our kids be able to know other kids in the neighborhood that go to school together just was a shock to us,” he says.
The divide over busing and neighborhood schools is not new in Louisville. In 1975, riots broke out after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the school district to begin busing students to integrate white schools in the suburbs and largely black ones in the city.
At Fairdale High School, where Shan’Taya Cowan now goes, people back then threw bricks through bus and car windows and armed guards were put on school buses. Louisville resident Amy Shir was in middle school at the time busing began and had to switch from a white school to a predominantly black one.
“I remember a lot of white flight, particularly into Catholic schools,” she says. “It was a real tumultuous time.”
Louisville was released from court supervision in 2000, but the city has kept its integration policies in place with several tweaks over the years. Shir has two children in Jefferson County Public Schools. She says she doesn’t want the policies to go away.
“As someone who wants to raise children that are open minded and compassionate and whatnot, I think we start young. I think we get our kids together young so they get to know each other,” she says.
Shan’Taya Cowan worries that ending the busing program would keep future kids in her neighborhood from experiencing the same benefits she did — and maybe having the same opportunities.
“They’re going to grow up in a bubble,” she says. “All they’re going to know is the kids that live down the street, around the corner and next door.”
The neighborhood schools bill has already passed Kentucky’s House of Representatives and awaits a hearing in the state Senate, which has passed similar measures in recent years.