Kentucky's highest court has ruled that the power to assign students to schools resides with local school boards—and that parents aren't guaranteed the right to send children to a particular school, such as the closest one available.
That ruling would appear to have implications for districts around the state, giving them much more say-so over how students are assigned to schools, and families' choices of schools.
The court's ruling offers a detailed and sometimes colorful parsing of the section of state law that describes attendance boundaries and what it means to enroll in a school.
The case was brought by a group of parents in the Jefferson County school system, in Louisville, who complained the district had improperly denied their right to send their children to schools that were close by. They pointed to a section of Kentucky law that says that parents and guardians "shall be permitted to enroll their children in the public school nearest to their home." Jefferson County's Board of Education, with the support of the Kentucky School Boards Association and 159 other districts, fought the parents' case, saying that the authority to assign students to schools belongs to districts.
The Supreme Court majority, in an opinion written by Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson, concluded that the statute's wording on student enrollment is not as binding as it might seem. The full context of the passage, she found, did not support the parents' argument.
Abramson also pointed to the Webster's dictionary definition of "enroll," the primary one being, "to enter or register in roll, list or record." It is apparent, wrote Abramson, "that 'enroll' does not in and of itself connote attendance," in which a student is given a spot at the nearest school and begins taking classes there.
"[T]he assignment of pupils to schools within a school district is a matter our General Assembly has committed to the sound discretion of the local school board," Abramson wrote.
That view drew a biting response from Justice Bill Cunningham, who wrote an opinion dissenting from the majority.
If "we ask a thousand people what is meant by the term 'enroll in,' I vouch that ever single person would say it includes the right to attend," Cunningham stated. He then offered an imaginary scenario in which the majority opinion was applied to the cirumstances of a fictional parent named Mrs. Morris:
Mrs. Morris gets a telephone call from Mr. Brown, the principal at Neighborhood Elementary School. "Good morning, Mrs. Morris. I'm pleased to tell you that Timmy will be allowed to enroll in Neighborhood Elementary School next Monday morning, the school nearest to your home." Being an astute listener, Mrs. Morris is happy to hear the words "enroll in" and not "enroll at." On Monday morning, little Timmy is scrubbed to a bright sheen, his hair slick and parted, and he is laden with a spanking new back pack, fresh pencils, paper and other school items. Mrs. Morris takes him to Neighborhood Elementary School and signs him in. Timmy is then ushered onto a school bus and transported ten miles away to start his first day of school. I would be very doubtful if Mrs. Morris climbs back into her minivan and goes quietly away. She has, in fact, been deceived and misled by the very school system charged with teaching our children honesty and integrity.
For us to interpret this phrase in any way other than the plain meaning of the words is to legislate. We should leave that to our General Assembly.
The Jefferson County system has a complicated history when it comes to student-assignment polices, through which district leaders have sought to desegregate their schools. Those policies have at times come in conflict with the courts.
The weight of the Kentucky court ruling on the state's schools and families remains to be seen. It's reasonable to assume that its influence will vary greatly by district, depending on how flexible or rigid individual school boards' current student assignment policies are.