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How Bill Could Upend Cross-County Busing In Louisville

school bus
Creative Commons

For years, students in Louisville, have been bused across the city and county. It’s been part of an effort to create more diverse schools in a highly-segregated city.

But a bill moving through the state legislature could upend that system.

Success Story

A couple months ago, Shan’Taya Cowan got into Harvard.

“I don’t know I just froze," Cowan said. "I just saw the first word, which was like ‘congratulations’ and I just didn’t know what to do. Because like, it was never really an option for me.”

Cowan is one of the successes of Louisville’s busing program.

For the last four years, she woke up early to take a bus to Fairdale High School, 15 miles away from her home.

She said she got a better education because of it.

“It's just way easier to make a connection with people and build a bond and it’s and you know that you have a lot of like people to help you along the way,” she said.

Cowan is scared that ending the busing program would keep future kids in the West End from experiencing the same benefits she did.

“They’re going to grow up in a bubble," she said. "All they’re going to know is the kids that live down the street, around the corner, next door; that’s all they’re going to know."

The bill making its way through the legislature would give priority school assignments to students who live closest to schools. That flies in the face of how Louisville 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 the policy has its detractors.

Louisville resident Peter Massey’s 7-year-old daughter wasn’t matched to the elementary school just three blocks away.

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 45-50 minutes a day each way,” said Massey.

The Masseys ended up enrolling their daughter in a nearby Catholic school and he said 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 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 said.

A 'real tumultuous time'

In 1975, riots broke out in Louisville out after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the city to begin busing students to integrate white schools in the suburbs and largely black ones in the city.

At suburban Fairdale High School, where Shan’Taya Cowan goes, people 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 and had to switch from a white school to a predominantly black one.

"There were people throwing bricks at each other’s cars, there were riots," Shir said. "I remember a lot of white flight, particularly into catholic schools. It was a real tumultuous time.”

Louisville was released from desegregation orders in 2000, but the city has kept its policies in place with several tweaks over the years.

Shir has two children in Jefferson County Public Schools. 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 said.

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.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.