The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

15 April 2006

You can go your own way

While Oklahoma wrestles with school consolidation, Omaha city schools are breaking apart:

In a move decried by some as state-sponsored segregation, the Legislature voted Thursday to divide the Omaha school system into three districts: one mostly black, one predominantly white and one largely Hispanic.

Supporters said the plan would give minorities control over their own school board and ensure that their children are not shortchanged in favor of white youngsters. Republican Gov. Dave Heineman signed the measure into law.

Attorney General Jon Bruning sent a letter to one of the measure's opponents saying that the bill could be in violation of the Constitution's equal-protection clause and that lawsuits almost certainly will be filed.

But its backers said that at the very least, its passage will force policymakers to negotiate seriously about the future of schools in the Omaha area.

The breakup would not occur until July 2008, leaving time for lawmakers to come up with another idea.

This goes beyond thinking outside the box; this is thinking that there is no box.

But Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers, the Nebraska legislature's only black member, defends the measure:

He argued that the district is already segregated, because it no longer buses students for integration and instead requires them to attend their neighborhood school.

Chambers said the schools attended largely by minorities lack the resources and quality teachers provided others in the district. He said the black students he represents in north Omaha would receive a better education if they had more control over their district.

I'd love to know what outgoing Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Bob Moore thinks about this idea.

(Via McGehee.)

Posted at 8:11 AM to Political Science Fiction


I won't claim to have studied this issue to any great extent. However, at first glance it seems to smell of "separate but equal" and we all know how well that practice worked south of Mason-Dixon.

Posted by: Joe Goodwin at 10:59 AM on 15 April 2006

Or, for that matter, to the north.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:04 AM on 15 April 2006

So, everyone seems to hate busing, but now that Omaha has stopped it because it's "not needed," socioeconomic boundaries have de facto segregated the schools anyway. That is, the kids aren't required to go to one high school because they're black; they're required to go to the mostly-black high school because they live in the mostly-black neighborhood, whether for economic or social reasons.

Then, to no one's real surprise, the school district pours most of the resources into the schools with the richer kids. Now there's a proposal to split the district into three parts so each racial school area has its own school board and more "control."

But we can all see the next step here: the state says to the new mostly-black and mostly-hispanic districts, "Sorry, but your district doesn't have that much taxable revenue or property in it, so you get less money this year." How does more control over less money provide for more "resources and quality teachers?"

This presumes the standard school funding system of property taxes and other sources of revenue within the district, supplemented by statewide funds. If Nebraska is different, and this plan means more total funding for the new districts, that's one thing.

If not, I think we can temporarily ignore the question of explicit racism for the more practical question: how, exactly, does this proposal solve the problems they describe?

Posted by: Matt at 1:57 PM on 15 April 2006

I don't think this plan is necessarily racist at its core, even if it does seem to thumb its nose at Brown v. Board of Education; but it's not at all clear how it's going to work.

And the new districts, just like the old one, will be subject to demographic shifts in the coming years anyway.

The Omaha World-Herald took a dim view of this scheme:

[Sen. Chambers] wants to encourage racial and ethnic balkanization. He wants to dwell on racial alienation and fixate the minds of fellow African-Americans on it, rather than build bridges across the racial divide. Such has been the theme throughout his career in public life.

During debate over the Chambers amendment, some state senators made a legitimate, sincere argument that smaller school districts are preferable to large ones.

But senators also need to understand that by repeatedly turning back efforts to remove the amendment, the Legislature has strengthened the hand of Chambers and others who endorse the racial politics of division and anger. Black leaders who strive for cooperation across the color line are being undercut. The Legislature is sending the wrong message.

This is, after all, not a white society or a black society. It is an interracial society. And we all had better work together, no matter how tirelessly or cleverly the champions of racial resentment pursue their agenda.

Maybe the Omaha district (45,000 students) is too big and unwieldy. (The Oklahoma City district serves just under 40,000, but it covers only a third of the city's incorporated area.) It might be useful to give some of the individual schools a little more autonomy, a little more flexibility. But this slice-and-dice approach strikes me as misguided.

Posted by: CGHill at 2:20 PM on 15 April 2006

I've always thought that the property tax support of schools in Oklahoma needs to be abolished and replaced with a statewide sales tax. Portions divided up by enrollment figures only with guaranteed minimums so the smallest schools at least know they won't be left out with pennies. The school system as a whole supports our society complete, not just districts, so society complete should support all the schools. My 0.02 anyway.

Posted by: joe at 5:23 PM on 15 April 2006

The school system as a whole supports our society complete...

The logical extension of this thought is to point out that private schools and homeschoolers also support our society complete, for which extended thought the consequences would extend beyond mere school vouchers.

Posted by: McGehee at 8:10 AM on 16 April 2006

I found this at La Shawn Barber's place (comment 27, by Paul):

All 10 Districts [in metro Omaha] were lumped into one "Learning Community", meaning that all ten districts are now under one Tax Umbrella. That is to say that now Urban Schools will be funded by not only Urban taxes but Suburban Taxes as well.

Now, each district gets one seat on the Learning Community Super Board, which governs how funds are split amongst districts.

This is where the size of OPS becomes important. As I said, OPS serves 45% of the students in the Omaha Metro Area. It would've been downright unfair to have such a large block of students be represented by only one out of ten votes on the Learning Community Super Board. As such, it was written into the legislation that OPS was to be split into 3 districts, and those districts were to be drawn on geographic lines.

So now presumably it will be three votes out of twelve.

I can't help but think there could have been an easier way to accomplish this.

Posted by: CGHill at 3:26 PM on 16 April 2006

This was tried many years ago in New York City. Local control was the mantra--and it led to local community boards which were hotbeds of corruption and waste. School board members were financing trips to Puerto Rico for the whole board and hiring their cronies. They also caused a bitter strike by the teachers' union as experienced teachers and principals were replaced by those who had clout. Bloomberg eliminated them, and a good thing, too.

Posted by: miriam at 4:06 PM on 16 April 2006