Monday, April 24, 2006

Omaha's New School Districts -- Segregation Returns?

On Sunday, the Kansas City Star had an article about recent legislation passed by the Unicameral in Nebraska concerning the Omaha Public School district. As the article notes, "legal challenges are expected." Of course, legal challenges were coming no matter what the state legislature did on this mess.

For the "history" of why this all happened, check out the Omaha World Herald's feature with a ton of articles about the "One City, One School District" controversy. Basically, this mess started when the Omaha Public Schools District (OPS) "announced" last fall, without any prior warning or discussion with anyone (including legislatively required public hearings), that it was going to "take over" portions of the suburban school districts that are within Omaha City Limits, including Millard Public Schools (MPS) and Ralston Public Schools (RPS).

The controversy became extremely heated, as a number of people have moved out of OPS and into the other districts because they perceived the suburban districts to do a better job of educating their children. Although the schools use different testing systems, the suburban schools generally score better on standardized tests than the OPS schools do. This is not entirely because of "better" teaching, but also partially a product of socio-economic makeup, etc. Nonetheless, many people made a conscious decision to enroll their children in these suburban districts specifically to get out of the OPS district.

OPS cited an ancient state statute that, according to OPS, required "one city, one school district" in Omaha. Legal representatives of MPS and RPS disputed that the statute actually authorized or required OPS to take over the schools in question. After a hugely divisive several months, during which people being effected by OPS's decision and the manner in which OPS made the takeover bid engaged in heated public debates, a number of issues were brought to light. Among the issues were the perceived inequity in funding, including state tax funding, for the OPS district and the suburban districts; although OPS receives more state funding per pupil than the other districts, OPS has a higher percentage of "high needs" students.

Eventually, the Legislature stepped into the debate. Several proposals were on the table. One of the proposals called for a "learning community" that would combine all school districts in Douglas and Sarpy Counties (which is where Omaha is) into a super-district for purposes of funding and joint efforts at integration. That proposal would also allow students to enroll in any district within the "community" and would provide funded transportation. Passage of that bill was questionable, until a last second effort from one of Nebraska's most controversial state Senators, Ernie Chambers.

Chambers added an amendment at the last minute that called for splitting OPS into three smaller districts. The district boundaries are drawn in a fashion that results in one largely black district, one largely white district, and one largely hispanic district. Although relatively similar "segregation" exists within the schools now, the district boundaries themselves are not currently segregative. Under this new law, they will be.

This has obviously garnered a fair amount of national attention, including mentions on CNN.com and Dateline. The City is more divided now than ever. And, of course, now OPS is inviting the other districts to sit down and "talk" about ways to resolve the issue. It's too bad that approach couldn't have been taken way back when OPS began this mess, and perhaps something more amicable could have been done in the first place.

I'm sure there's more to come on this.

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