Does all that busing in Jefferson County schools work?

Last week Governor Bevin touched on one of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) self-inflicted education problems when he discussed the excessive and hugely expensive school busing situation in the school district, saying:

“Are we really helping these children by taking them from one community, putting them on a bus … to another community where arguably they should be getting a better education but frankly they may or may not be?”

It’s a fair question, one people in Louisville seem unwilling to really explore. So, let’s do that for them here.

In February 2016 the Bluegrass Institute released a new edition in our Blacks Falling Through Gaps series on JCPS. In “Blacks Continue Falling Through Gaps in Louisville’s Schools, The 2016 Update,” we found white minus black achievement gaps on eighth and tenth grade college readiness assessments were generally increasing. We also found dramatic evidence of very poor quality control over high school diploma awards and that blacks were far more likely than whites in JCPS to be socially promoted to a rather hollow diploma.

And, we found evidence that extreme busing in JCPS doesn’t reliably improve performance for black students.

Figure 1 below shows the location of the 19 JCPS elementary schools which posted very large KPREP math white minus black achievement gaps in 2015 of 30 percentage points or more.

It’s easy to see that these biggest gap schools predominantly are found in the upper scale areas of Jefferson County, generally located east of I-65.

Elementary School Map

This map doesn’t seem to tell a very satisfying story about the success of busing in JCPS. It appears that students can be bused way across town and still not get an improved education in supposedly upper scale schools.

But, in some cases the story actually is even more dramatic.

For example, the Dunn Elementary school ranks in first place for the largest elementary school white minus black math achievement gap in JCPS in 2015. That gap was an astonishingly high 50.5 percentage points!

Even more objectionable, Dunn Elementary’s black students actually had a much lower 2015 math proficiency rate (24.0%) than blacks achieved in much higher poverty and higher minority elementary schools in West End Louisville such as Kennedy (45.5%) and Carter (61.5%).

Note: Kennedy and Carter don’t have huge achievement gaps and therefore are not shown on the map.

Even the Portland Elementary School – a “Needs Improvement” school in 2015 with a long history of educational challenges – posted a much higher black math proficiency rate (39.3%) than Dunn’s in 2015.

Incredibly, if a black student were to live near Portland but went to Dunn instead, that student would ride a bus to a school that might, on average, offer less chance of academic success.

By the way, in the latest 2016 KPREP math testing, Dunn’s black student proficiency rate sank even more. While Dunn’s black math proficiency rate was only 24.0 percent in 2015, it plummeted to only 14.6 percent in 2016! The already really bad got much worse.

Dunn isn’t the only problem, either. The number three gap school in 2015, Hawthorne Elementary, had an even lower black proficiency rate than Dunn that year, with only 19.6 percent of its black students meeting the proficiency mark. Hawthorne’s black math proficiency slid even more to just 18.4 percent in 2016.

So, our gap map indicates that busing black kids to the east side of the school district provides no guarantees those students of color will actually do better there. Perhaps the many millions spent on bus operations and diesel fuel each year could be far more productively used if more kids attended their neighborhood school and the massive money saved was used to enhance the teaching corps and repair facilities, instead.

And, just maybe, a lot of discipline issues and traffic issues would go away, as well.