School Choice Expands in Nebraska

Published September 1, 2007

In late May, Nebraska lawmakers expanded parents’ education options within a new, more equalized funding structure, while fixing a law that some critics said segregated schools.

By signing Legislative Bill 641 on May 24, Gov. Dave Heineman (R) rescinded part of a 2006 statute (LB 1024) that generated controversy by splitting Omaha Public Schools (OPS) into three districts. LB 1024 was designed to split the district into smaller pieces to provide services more effectively.

However, the Omaha branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit against the state in 2006 after LB 1024 passed, saying each of the three districts would be racially distinct. The state legislature revisited the issue and satisfied the complaint by passing LB 641 this year.

“[The lawsuit] put the pressure from this community on them to make them look at it,” said branch president Tommie Wilson. “We have established the fact that separate is not equal, due to Brown v. Board of Education. The way it was divided into all-white, all-black, all-Latino would not work.”

Original Goal

Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Ron Raikes (Lincoln), who sponsored both bills, disagreed.

“You wouldn’t have to divide it that way,” Raikes said. “The idea was to provide educational opportunity to kids, regardless of where they lived.”

Raikes said LB 1024’s centerpiece was the creation of a Learning Community to coordinate education services for students in the Omaha metropolitan area’s 11 school districts. Under the arrangement, the districts would share most of the property tax base–despite a wide range in average property valuation per student.

But Wilson said the original proposal would have left blacks and poor whites in the more impoverished neighborhoods of north Omaha with less funding.

“It was not going to be equal,” Wilson said.

More Choice

LB 641 did not affect plans for the Learning Community, oversight for which will be provided by a coordinating council of six appointed metro school board members and 12 other citizens elected at large.

“It involves a formal structure in which school districts not only compete with each other but also, in important ways, they cooperate,” Raikes said.

In addition, Raikes said, the bill increases students’ opportunities to cross district boundaries to attend public schools of choice. Eligible to receive joint funding from across the attendance area, “focus schools” will highlight special curricula and promote racial diversity on campus. As an expansion of opportunity for open enrollment, student transfers will be voluntary.

“There’s nothing here that requires assignment based on race,” Raikes said.

While Wilson cited these opportunities as improvements, she noted the focus schools’ capacity is limited. She also anticipates issues with inadequate transportation for children from poorer neighborhoods, but said the local NAACP is looking for ways to help families who make that choice.

‘Innovative Effort’

LB 641 also provides for the creation of Learning Centers that can be operated by private, nonprofit groups through a public contract to provide after-school and summer programs to at-risk elementary students. By law, there must be at least one center for every 25 elementary schools, with at least 35 percent of the student population classified as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“This is a far-reaching and innovative effort to address metropolitan area issues regarding educational opportunity and achievement of particularly at-risk kids, but more generally all kids,” said Raikes.

Wilson said she has been disheartened to see conditions where many black teens lose hope and drop out of high school, and those who gain knowledge and skills “leave town.” But she also believes “things are going to change.”

For now, the local NAACP president is glad to see her city will not be setting another precedent for others nationwide.

“We didn’t want anyone to say that [segregation] works in Omaha,” Wilson said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.