Believing that a return to neighborhood schools will re-segregate the Jefferson County school system, the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition called on Republican mayoral candidate Hal Heiner to immediately pull a campaign ad criticizing the controversial student assignment plan.
“Councilman Hal Heiner’s plan will take our city back to the 1950s. We cannot afford that,” says the Rev. Frank Smith Jr., president of the coalition, which represents over 100 churches. “Mr. Heiner is playing games with our children — and trying to drive votes based on fear. That is shameful.”
The 30-second commercial began airing earlier this week, and in it the east Louisville Republican says it is time to end the Jefferson County Public School’s “failed student assignment plan.”
The controversial plan attempts to keep the county’s public schools integrated by taking the socioeconomic characteristics of a student’s neighborhood into consideration when making enrollment decisions. The current plan replaced a desegregation initiative that looked at a students’ race when assigning them to schools after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that plan in 2007.
The ministers join Heiner’s opponent, Democrat Greg Fischer and JCPS Superintendent Sheldon Berman, who have already criticized the ad, saying it turns children into paws, politicizes their education and panders to voters considering that the mayor of Louisville has no formal power over the school system.
The Heiner campaign says it will not remove the ad, and contends that they are not advocating for neighborhood schools in the commercial, but are pushing for a conversation to improve on the achievement gap and address failing schools in the district.
“Hal Heiner rejects the idea that we cannot have a discussion on education in this community. This community has gone too long without taking a fresh look at education, and it is time to ask ourselves if this is acceptable,” says Joe Burgan, Heiner’s campaign manager. “Is it acceptable to have a dropout rate that is double the state average? Is it acceptable to have 6 failing schools and to have our children riding buses for 3 hours a day? Something has to change, and Hal is unapologetic for standing up for parents and children across this community.”
The most recent test scores are a dismal picture that shows JCPS are well below federal expectations in the No Child Left Behind guidelines, failing to adequately meet the math and reading standards. The Courier-Journal reported that just 21 percent of the district’s 133 schools met all their goals, compared with 37 percent last year and 44 percent in 2008. The numbers are particularly low among among the district’s minority and low-income students.
And a recent report released by the Schott Foundation showed the graduation rate for African-American males in JCPS in the 2007-2008 school year was only 36 percent, which is well below the national average.
The new plan has been a hot button issue in the community for the past few years, with many parents upset that their children are kept out of schools closer to home and are being forced to ride buses for hours. Recently, a lawsuit challenging the plan that was brought by several parents was dismissed by Jefferson Circuit Judge Irv Maze.
The ministerial coalition said it agrees that long bus rides aren’t good for children, but that diversity remains an important issue in the community. The group of ministers said JCPS officials need to make improvements to the current assignment plan rather than throwing it out altogether.
“I think diversity, achievement (gap) and everything needs to be excellent and we need to improve in all areas. That’s what makes Louisville competitive,” says the Rev. Smith. “We need the diversity because cultural experiences on all backgrounds are part of a quality education.”