What saved the JCPS student assignment plan? The dictionary.
According to the Kentucky Supreme Court, the words “enroll” and “attend” don’t mean the same thing.
But parents of 14 JCPS students who filed a lawsuit thought differently. In a long, contentious battle with the district, those parents, led by attorney Teddy Gordon (a bulldog chasing the end of what he sees as the unfair, expensive JCPS practice of busing kids), argued the wording of a Kentucky statute grants their children the right to attend a particular school.
But in their 5-2 ruling, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled, “Kentucky public school students have no statutory right to attend a particular school.” The majority determined “enroll” is not synonymous with “attend.”
A bit of history here. The state law at the heart of this lawsuit reads in part:
“Within the appropriate school district attendance area, parents or legal guardians shall be permitted to enroll their children in the public school nearest their home.”
At one point, decades ago, the state law had the words “enroll for attendance.” But 1990 legislation deleted those two words — for attendance.
While an earlier Court of Appeals ruling interpreted the word “enroll” as means for purposes of attendance, the Kentucky Supreme Court disagreed.
“The court has routinely consulted the dictionary rather than stating our own definition of the word. This case is no exception.”
“If litigants come before this Court disputing the meaning of one phrase in one sentence of a certain statute, we must look at that statute in its entirety but also at surrounding statutes regarding the same subject matter because no on statute is more deserving of our attention and consideration than another … Simply put, courts should not wear blinders and refuse to venture beyond a phrase or passage that one or more of the litigants offers up as dispositive.”
In their ruling, the five majority justices pointed to other education statutes that use the words — enroll and attend — with separate meanings.
“… it is also evident that the legislature has distinguished ‘enroll’ from ‘attend’ in other parts of the KRS Chapter and, most notably, has recognized in its compulsory school attendance provision the requirement that a parent send his or her child/student ‘to the public school that the board of education of the district makes provision for the child to attend.’”
In other words, the district holds the authority to decide where children go. Currently, JCPS utilizes a student’s race, socioeconomic status and the educational attainment demographics from that child’s neighborhood as a way of assigning students, the goal being to create diverse schools. That new formula of factors came after a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared Jefferson County’s former student assignment plan relied too heavily on race. Teddy Gordon argued that case.
As far as today’s ruling goes, Gordon issued this statement:
“All the parents in this case were courageous to take on the school system, and even though they did not win this round, they have made JCPS turn the corner, away from the outdated social experiment of busing. Now these parents are hopeful that JCPS will start improving the education outcome for all our children.”
Two justices — Justice Bill Cunningham and Justice Daniel Venters — dissented from the majority opinion. Cunningham wrote:
“I cannot read the statute in any way other than in its plain meaning. And if we ask a thousand people what is meant by the term ‘enroll in,’ I vouch that every single person would say it includes the right to attend.”
But Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, who wrote the majority opinion, contends that at this point the future of neighborhood schools will come down to who gets voted into the three vacant school board seats this fall.
“If Plantiffs seek change in the JCPS student assignment plan, their recourse is at the ballot box when members of the Jefferson County Board of Education are elected by voters.”
Not surprisingly, JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens tells LEO she’s pleased with this latest development, saying it affirms the district’s position that school boards have the “right and responsibility to assign kids to school.”