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Published in Print: May 24, 2006, as NAACP Suit Challenges Breakup of Omaha Schools

NAACP Suit Challenges Breakup of Omaha Schools

New legal action alleges state-backed segregation.

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The nation’s best-known civil rights group has jumped into the fray over a controversial Nebraska law that would divide the 45,000-student Omaha school system into three separate districts, largely along racial and ethnic lines.

In a lawsuit filed May 16 in U.S. District Court in Omaha, Neb., the Omaha branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People contends that the new law amounts to state-sponsored segregation in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The suit names Gov. David Heineman, state Commissioner of Education Douglas D. Christensen, and other state officials as defendants. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., based in New York City, filed the suit on behalf of the Baltimore-based NAACP and three Omaha parents.

The move came on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP mounted the legal challenge that led to the court’s historic 1954 decision striking down the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

“We should be making progress toward greater integration,” Tommie Wilson, the president of the NAACP’s Omaha branch, said last week. “Segregation is a moral wrong regardless of who advocates for it.”

His comment seemed directed at state Sen. Ernie Chambers, the only African-American in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature and the lawmaker who crafted the amendment calling for the breakup of the Omaha Public Schools, beginning in 2008.

‘Making Water Wetter’

Enacted last month as part of a larger bill that includes new opportunities for interdistrict student transfers within the metropolitan area, the breakup provision—using current attendance zones as boundaries—would result in districts that each have a concentration favoring one racial or ethnic group: white, African-American, and Hispanic. ("Nebraska to Break Up Omaha District," April 19, 2006 and "Omaha Eyes Alternatives to Breakup," April 26, 2006.)

Nebraska Law Targeted

The NAACP has filed a lawsuit challenging a law that would divide the Omaha district largely along ethnic and racial lines.

The new state law that calls for breaking up the Omaha public schools into three districts uses current school attendance zones as the boundaries. District leaders who oppose the plan estimated what those districts would probably look like, showing how they would have sharply contrasting racial and ethnic compositions.

Current Enrollment
Total 45,000
Black 31.5%
White 44.1
Latino 21.2
Proposed District A
Black 20.2%
White 70.6
Latino 4.9
Proposed District B
Black 50.5%
White 32.2
Latino 14.5
Proposed District C
Black 9.2%
White 39.7
Latino 48.4

Sen. Chambers’ response to the NAACP’s action was heated. In an interview last week, the senator called the lawsuit the “height of hypocrisy,” and suggested that the move reflected deference to largely white corporate interests. Some of the strongest local opposition to the planned breakup has come from the famed Omaha-based investor Warren Buffett and other business leaders.

Schools in Omaha already are racially segregated, Sen. Chambers said, and the new law merely sets district lines based on residency patterns.

“To accuse me of segregating already-segregated schools is to accuse me of making water wetter,” he said.

If the NAACP were really interested in correcting the racial and economic disparities in Omaha, he added, the group would have stepped in when the Omaha schools shifted from court-ordered mandatory busing to a voluntary integration plan and neighborhood schools in 1999.

Or, he continued, the NAACP could have stepped in even earlier, in 1947, when the legislature created the all-white, middle-class 6,000-student Westside Community Schools right in the middle of OPS territory. “We are trying to mitigate the harm already done,” Sen. Chambers said.

‘Already Integrated’

Officials of the Omaha school system, on the other hand, see the NAACP lawsuit as a “positive step,” said Luanne Nelson, the district’s public-information director.

“We have felt all along that parts of [the law] are unconstitutional, and this [lawsuit] reinforces our position,” she said.

All OPS magnet, middle, and high schools are integrated, according to Ms. Nelson, and more than half the elementary schools, which are neighborhood schools, are integrated. Districtwide, 44.1 percent of students are white, 31.5 percent are African-American, and 21.2 percent are Latino.

The law calls for revenue sharing and establishes a common tax base among the current Omaha system and 10 surrounding districts, which supporters say will even out existing funding disparities between the school districts.

The law also allows students, especially those in low-income areas, to transfer to any school within an 11-district “learning community” that includes districts in and around Omaha.

Some lawmakers see the breakup measure as a compromise on Omaha school officials’ effort last summer to expand the district through annexation, a move that outlying districts strongly resisted. ("Neb. Governor, Districts Oppose Omaha School Annexation Plan," Aug. 31, 2005.)

In seeking to overturn the measure, the NAACP lawsuit cites the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“[We] joined this litigation not because we believe that all-black institutions are inherently inferior because they are black, or that black children need to sit beside white children to learn,” Theodore M. Shaw, the director-counsel and president of the Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement.

“[R]acially segregated schools are not equal,” he said, “and the state ought not to make decisions that intentionally segregate students on the basis of race.”

Vol. 25, Issue 38, Pages 5,15

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