Segregation and Racism in Jefferson County Public Schools

Prior to 1975, public schools in Louisville, Kentucky were separated into two districts: the Louisville school system and the Jefferson County school system. After the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, the Kentucky Board of Education merged the two districts into one, naming it the Jefferson County Public Schools System. The Jefferson County Public Schools System, also known as JCPS, is the largest school system in Kentucky and the 29th largest school system in the United States. The school system serves roughly 96,000 students, 66.7% of those students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In response to the district merger, many white families fled to the suburbs. When white families flocked to the suburbs, they took tax dollars that could have been invested into inner-city schools with them. The effects of “White Flight” can still be seen in school systems today, especially within JCPS schools. In the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation within public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. After the ruling in Brown, schools were forced to craft desegregation plans. The plan that most school districts came up with was mandatory busing that would racially integrate schools. Mandatory busing was disguised as a plan that would benefit both Black and White school children, but it resulted in a majority of Black students taking buses throughout the district.

Between 1987 and 2008, there was a rising trend in segregation due to white flight and desegregation policies. In 1991, JCPS schools created elementary school “clusters” and established “school choice.” In hopes of integrating elementary schools, JCPS gerrymandered elementary school clusters and created school zones that aimed to combine students from all areas of the city. Although each JCPS student is assigned a group of schools they are allowed to go to based on where they reside, the district allows families to essentially choose what school they send their children to within the district because of the current transfer policy. JCPS parents don’t have to provide a true reason as to why they’re transferring out of their assigned school. As long as there is an open seat in their desired school, the student has satisfactory grades and has no suspensions on their record,  they’re often allowed to transfer.

JCPS’ transfer policy essentially allows segregation within the school district. White parents are able to opt-out of going to predominantly Black schools, and Black students remain at the schools that they’re assigned to. According to data provided by JCPS, high schools that are predominantly Black have a high number of students transferring to predominantly White schools. During the 2019-2020 school year, Waggener, a high school within JCPS that is 53% Black, had 57 students transfer to predominantly white schools. The current transfer policy negatively impacts Black students in JCPS because they are being denied the opportunity to attend integrated schools, a promise that was given in the Brown v. Board decision. When discussing desegregation within schools, Judge Debra M. Brown wrote: “The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally- guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

JCPS has a high number of students in poverty, which results in a number of schools being labeled as “Title I schools.” Title I is a federally funded program that provides financial assistance to schools with a high poverty rate. A school is eligible to receive Title I funds if 40% of the school qualifies for free and reduced lunch. When conducting my research, I decided to focus on JCPS middle schools. I chose to explore the relationship between Title I schools, race, and discipline within middle schools in the Jefferson County Public School System. The racial inequities present within JCPS are often overlooked, leaving the needs of Black students to be unmet. If these issues aren’t addressed, generations of Black children to come will face hardships at the hands of the education system. 

Out of the 27 middle schools in JCPS, there are only 4 schools available to the West End. Two of the schools are magnet schools, one of those being a new all-girls school for young women interested in STEAM, and the others are “resides” schools, meaning they are assigned to students based on where they live. There are 62,000 residents in the West End of Louisville, 80% of them are African American. All of the schools in the West End are Title I schools and three out of the four schools have a high number of suspensions. The three middle schools that serve the East End are all predominantly white and have a lower suspension rate than those in the West End. Why is it that Black students are getting suspended at a higher rate than their White counterparts for the same incidents? Why does the location of a school determine how the students are treated? Black children are being criminalized because of their skin color and are forced to miss school, furthering the racial achievement gap between Black and White students. When Black students are stripped from the classroom, they are missing out on face-to-face instruction, which can cause them to fall behind in school.

With that being said, one may think that if schools were to become more integrated, these racial inequities would disappear, and sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Many of these issues are interwoven and in order to see true change, the entirety of the education system has to be reevaluated in order to best meet the needs of all students. As promised in Brown v. Board of Education, students have the right to an education in an integrated school. Although JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio has worked on creating a new student assignment plan since 2017, the process needs to be hastened because Black students’ livelihoods are at stake. JCPS prioritizes the feelings of other students, yet fails to see how the system is taking a toll on Black students.

Sadly, the public paints schools as “good” or “bad” based on whether they are majority white or Black, which causes some JCPS students to be embarrassed about where they receive their education. In the Courier Journal podcast, A “Bad” School,  JCPS students give first-hand accounts of their experience within their respective schools. If all schools had the same opportunities and resources, Black students wouldn’t have to be bused throughout the city to “good” schools, and schools that are predominantly Black wouldn’t be labeled as “bad” schools. Many people fail to look below the surface and see how many of these trends, such as high dropout rates, are linked to systemic racism. Simply put, a school should just be a school. If all schools are given the same facilities, same access to test preparatory courses, given equal punishments, etc.,  then all students, regardless of race, would feel confident attending a school within the Jefferson County Public School System.

1 Comment

  1. This was a very eye-opening read. Thank you for your research and reporting on this topic. I wish more people knew how serious this issue is!


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