The ultimate goals of both the decades-old Jefferson County Public Schools’ (JCPS) busing plan and Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) were similar: improve the academic performance all students, especially that of traditionally disadvantaged kids like racial minorities and those in poverty.
Yet, a new Bluegrass Institute report shows the goals remain disturbingly far from being achieved:
- Only 9.5% of the white students at Iroquois High School tested proficient or more on the 2019 Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) math assessment. Despite massive busing efforts, blacks in the school did even worse, posting a truly depressing math proficiency rate of just 1.2%.
- Among the 20 JCPS high schools reporting math scores for both white and black students, 11 of them – more than half – produced single-digit proficiency rates for their black students.
- Both Bloom and Norton Commons elementary schools posted white minus black achievement gaps of over 50 percentage points in 2019.
In fact, only 7.3% of Bloom’s black students scored proficient or above on the 2019 K-PREP math test.
And, while Norton Commons is located far into the upper-scale East End of the JCPS district, it’s black math proficiency rate of only 21.4% is far below the 42.9% black math proficiency rate in West Louisville’s Portland Elementary School.
Is JCPS busing blacks away from schools that can serve them better?
The concentrations of the biggest math gaps are certainly geographic.
The new report’s maps show the biggest concentrations of large math achievement gaps at all levels of K-12 – elementary, middle and high school – are found in the upper-scale, eastern part of JCPS.
Among the 27 elementary schools with math achievement gaps exceeding 25 percentage points, the vast majority – 18 to be exact – are found east of I-65.
Indeed, some of the very largest white minus black math achievement gaps are found in schools located in far-eastern Jefferson County such as Norton Commons Elementary School with its gap of 52.1 percentage points.
Why does Norton Commons do so well for its white students, who score far above the JCPS white average, while its black students trail well behind?
Is this all that expensive busing and lots of education experimenting can do for these black children?
- More than half of JCPS’ middle schools reporting both white and black proficiency rates for 2018-19 finished that school year with gaps of 20 points or more, adding to the concern about whether busing students causes unnecessary academic failure.
How is it, for example, that black students at Western Middle School, which is very much in the West End, scored 30.4% proficient while blacks at Crosby in the East End only managed to reach 18.2% proficiency?
These results make it difficult to deny that at least in some cases, black students in Louisville’s West End might perform better academically by not being forced to take long bus rides to East End schools.
In addition to academic performance, the Bluegrass Institute’s report reveals serious inequities in high school graduation rates hidden by the public education system’s official numbers unevenly inflated by lots of social promotion resulting in black students getting more hollow diplomas than their white counterparts.
Also, by combining the state’s official 4-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate with the officially reported Transition Ready Rate identifying graduates ready to advance to college or a career, the report shows that blacks often graduate with lower skill sets than whites, although reporting of the official graduation rates by themselves hides this serious inequity.
Overall, the report makes a strong case that many years of experiments and busing haven’t worked for the largest racial minority in JCPS.
The findings have important implications for current discussions about the district’s student assignment plan, which drives the district’s busing policy, and certainly raise concerns that JCPS taxpayers don’t get nearly enough bang for the very considerable bucks the system already receives.
It’s time to look at more rational education approaches, including school-choice options like increased use of inter-district transfer agreements and public charter schools, that would make JCPS schools more equal, whether they’re in the west or east ends of the JCPS district.
Plus, if busing were going to provide a more equitable education for all students, it should have done so by now, having been in place for 45 years.
Instead, it’s failed to live up to the hype of providing a viable option for closing the gaps and improving the education.
It’s time for a better plan. And for sure, busing should be a parent decision, not a school district direction.
Richard G. Innes is an education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank (www.bipps.org). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.