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Black, Latino, low-income and immigrant students most likely to leave magnets after JCPS cuts busing

Buses are parked in a parking lot. A few people mill in between. A hazy sunrise in the background.
Jess Clark
Buses gathered at the Detrick and Nichols Bus Compound before students change buses.

Data from a Jefferson County Public Schools survey shows what many feared — low-income students and students of color are most impacted by cuts to magnet transportation.

Raoul Cunningham knew what would happen if Jefferson County Public Schools stopped busing magnet students: Black, Brown and poor students would bear the brunt of the impact.

Cunningham, the Louisville NAACP branch president, said cutting transportation to the district’s magnet and traditional school programs would “deny opportunities for high quality education” for the city’s most underserved students.

He was right, according to data obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Black, Latino, multilingual and low-income students are the most likely to leave their school in the wake of the transportation cuts, responses from a JCPS survey of families show. The district sent out the survey in May asking families if students planned to attend their magnet school in the fall, once they no longer had a school bus.

In all, 982 students are expected to leave their magnet school after the Jefferson County Board of Education voted in April to eliminate most transportation to magnets and traditional programs. Black students make up 37% of the district’s 18,000 magnet student population, but account for 44% of the students set to leave their school.

Black students and low-income magnet students are also twice as likely to leave their school compared to white, more affluent magnet students. Latino students are nearly three times more likely than their white peers to leave magnet programs.

Multilingual students are also heavily impacted. While students learning English make up 6% of all JCPS magnet students, they account for 16% of the students who said they plan to transfer.

“Frankly, these numbers fail to surprise me at all,” Louisville NAACP member Michelle Patrick told KyCIR in an email.

Patrick was among a number of community leaders who packed into JCPS board of education meetings in the spring to oppose the route reductions. She warned, along with Cunningham and others, that cutting magnet transportation would hit Black, Brown and low-income children the hardest.

In an emailed statement, JCPS spokesperson Carolyn Callahan said that the Jefferson County Board of Education “determined eliminating transportation for most magnet schools was the best and most equitable option, with the least negative impact on students of color, to deal with the nationwide bus driver shortage.”

Callahan also said the district is “pleased” that 77% of Black students said they would remain at their magnet.

“Less than 1,000 of our 18,000 magnet students have indicated a desire to transfer, some of them for reasons other than a lack of transportation,” she said.

Callahan said the cuts would help reduce the amount of missed instructional time students face throughout the school year due to delayed buses.

Earlier this year, LPM News found Black students, both magnet and non-magnet, are disproportionately impacted by delays under this year’s understaffed transportation plan.

Ticket to ride

In JCPS, getting into a magnet school or program is often seen as a ticket to the top. The programs offer unique, specialized instruction, and students have to apply to get in. Many of the most prestigious magnets have more experienced teachers and fewer behavioral disruptions by students. A diploma from certain magnet high schools is also more likely to catch the eye of college admissions officers.

The school board’s April vote to cut transportation came after a tumultuous school year marred by transportation problems — too few drivers and a shoddy routing system that led to millions of missed instructional minutes.

The district’s decision to eliminate magnet busing prompted local NAACP leaders to call for the resignation of top district officials and reconsider the group’s support for the new student assignment plan that went into effect last August. JCPS officials said that plan would allow more options for Black, Brown and low-income students to attend magnet programs and schools closer to home. That plan, however, failed to take into account a spiraling driver shortage, according to an independent audit of the district’s transportation failures.

“Our community was promised ‘choice,’ but it has only deprived our children,” Patrick told KyCIR.

A group of JCPS parents is suing the district over the cuts, alleging they are discriminatory.

Last month, LPM found magnet programs and schools with a high share of low-income students and students of color stand to lose the most enrollment due to transportation cuts.

Overall, that analysis showed about 5.5% of JCPS’ 18,000 magnet students were planning to leave their magnet as of May 22. About 80% said they planned to stay and 14% did not respond to the survey. Students of color, low-income students and multilingual students were more likely not to respond to the survey than wealthier students, white students and English-proficient students, according to KyCIR’s analysis.

And the survey likely fails to show the full scope of enrollment changes that will come when families meet with the daily realities of providing their own transportation, said Lyndon Pryor, president of the Louisville Urban League.

“I think you are unfortunately going to have a lot of parents who meet the reality of, ‘I don't know how I'm going to do this,’” Pryor told LPM in June.

Some magnet students may regain transportation later this fall, if a deal between JCPS and TARC goes as planned. That agreement leases up to 70 TARC drivers to JCPS. It is not clear how many of those drivers will agree to stay on. At least some TARC employees may be needed to provide transportation for non-magnet students.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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