Nebraska lawmakers yesterday approved a hotly debated bill to break up the Omaha Public Schools—largely along racial and ethnic lines—under a plan that critics say amounts to state-sanctioned segregation and that likely will face a legal challenge.
Passed April 13 in the last hours of the legislative session and signed the same day by Gov. Dave Heineman, the law calls for splitting up the 45,000-student district by 2008. Using current attendance zones as boundaries, the result will be three districts with contrasting demographics: one predominantly black, another mostly white, and the other largely Latino.
“You’re legislating segregation, and that’s not OK,” said Susie Buffett, a district parent and the daughter of the famed investor Warren Buffett, one of many Omaha business leaders who denounced the plan in recent days.
But the measure was introduced by Nebraska’s only African-American state lawmaker, Sen. Ernie Chambers, who argued that it would give minority parents more say in school policy, while not creating any more racial or ethnic isolation than already exists in the city’s schools.
Backers of the law, which passed on a final vote of 31-16 in the unicameral legislature, also noted that the breakup plan was part of a larger education measure that includes new opportunities for students to transfer, space permitting, between districts within the Omaha metropolitan area.
Separate but Equal?
“We’re taking down district boundaries when it comes to students,” said Sen. Ronald E. Raikes, who introduced the overall bill. “We’re not going to hide behind a single big school district; we’re going to recognize what we’ve got and work to fix it, by empowering local communities.”
The issue erupted this month as the legislature took up a bill offered as a compromise to Omaha leaders who last year proposed taking over schools in three neighboring districts. State law lets districts do so as cities expand through annexation, but the outlying districts rejected the idea. (“Neb. Governor, Districts Oppose Omaha School Annexation Plan,” August 31, 2005)
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.
Omaha’s Current Enrollment
• Black 31.5%
• White 44.1%
• Latino 21.2%
SOURCE: Omaha Public Schools
Under the compromise included in the law passed last week, Omaha and 10 area districts will form a “learning community,” in which they govern themselves, but share local tax revenues and allow for student transfers between them to assist in integration—two goals of the district’s annexation proposal.
It was amid discussion of that plan that Sen. Chambers, who represents part of Omaha, introduced an amendment that would divide the district into three smaller systems, each with two or three high schools. The district, now the state’s largest, has seven high schools.
A longtime critic of the district’s leadership, the lawmaker said his intent was to give more voice to parents in the education of their children. Each of the new districts would be led by its own school board elected by voters in its part of the city.
“The only way we have a shot of improving things is to make it possible for the people whose children attend these schools to have control over them, and what goes on in them,” Sen. Chambers said in an interview last week.
District leaders say the change will replace a system in which no one racial or ethnic group represents the majority of the students with three districts that each has a distinct racial or ethnic majority.
Race has long been a factor in Omaha school-policy discussions. Once under a court-imposed desegregation order, the district stopped bussing students in 1999, which resulted in a reconcentration of minority students in parts of the district.
Ulterior Motives Claimed
The prospect of further segregation alarms many members of the Omaha community. Some 20 civic and business leaders, including Mr. Buffett, the chairman of the investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, signed a letter warning that the measure would hurt the region’s economy by damaging its reputation.
SOURCE: Omaha Public Schools
“This is 2006, and we’d be going back to Plessy v. Ferguson,” said Sandy Jensen, president of the Omaha school board, referring to the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the “separate but equal” doctrine. That principle, the legal bulwark of racially segregated systems of public education, was overturned by the court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Despite such concerns, the plan to break up the Omaha district streaked through the legislature in just five days after lawmakers first voted 33-6 to add it to the “learning community” measure. Gov. Heineman, a Republican, signed it almost immediately upon receiving it, saying in a statement that it would promote parent engagement.
Some Omaha leaders charge the legislature as a whole with supporting the law as a way to punish the district. Not only did many lawmakers resent the district’s plan to absorb schools from surrounding systems, but the Omaha district also is suing the state for more education funding.
“This [law] has nothing to do with any legitimate claims about the size of the school district,” said Omaha Superintendent John J. Mackiel.
Regardless of the motives for the law, a bigger battle likely has just begun.
Even before the legislature took its final vote, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, an elected Republican, issued a letter to lawmakers warning that the legislation raised “serious constitutional problems” and that, “should the bill pass, long-term litigation will almost certainly result.”
William L. Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, an advocacy group based in Washington, agreed. While the measure may not exacerbate the racial and ethnic isolation already within Omaha’s public schools, he said, the new district boundaries will make such isolation more “entrenched.”
“It is intended to promote segregation,” he said of the Nebraska law. “And ever since Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, school desegregation has been the stated policy of the country.”
Sen. Raikes said the opposite was true of the new law. Under the learning-community plan, Omaha and 10 surrounding districts are required to take part in integration efforts, such as interdistrict student transfers. The law states that any of those districts that refuse to participate in the transfers can be dissolved.
“I would defy you to find any place else in the country that, without a court order, has been as aggressive as we have been in addressing this sort of an issue,” Sen. Raikes said.