Monday, November 28, 2005

The Long Road to "One City, One School District"

by Kyle Michaelis

Today's Omaha-World Herald offers a bit of required reading for anyone venturing an opinion on Omaha Public School's controversial plan to absorb the city's outlying, more affluent school districts. The article provides some important historical context that makes clear this is one battle that's been a long time coming:
Omaha's "one city, one school district" controversy only appeared to come out of nowhere. In reality, it is a fight that the Omaha Public Schools backed away from during the turbulent times of the 1970s.

Many of the current issues echo those from three decades ago. Racial segregation. Money. Community identity.

"We discussed at great length going after 'one city, one school district' at the time," said Tim Rouse, an Omaha school board member in the 1970s. "It's the same topic that's on the floor now: If Omaha wants to be a desegregated school system, it needs to have a citywide system or you'll have poverty in one part and wealth in others"....

While OPS leaders were discussing the issue in private, a maverick Omaha state senator was pressing it in public.

David Stahmer, a former Omaha school board member who has since died, sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would have merged virtually all of the Westside, Millard and Ralston school districts with Omaha. He cited the 1891 so-called "one city, one school district" statute OPS is trying to use now.

The bill failed. OPS did not support it....

Not trying to annex Millard, [former OPS superintendant Norbert] Schuerman said, could be attributed to "a lack of foresight, a lack of sensitivity to the future demographics."

Besides all that, OPS faced the challenge of peacefully mandating busing for desegregation....

According to Schuerman, local officials had three priorities: Meet the court guidelines, avoid violence and integrate so children could build relationships....

Omaha left out the suburbs when it desegregated its main urban district. OPS busing accelerated the pace of suburban growth, particularly to Millard, according to retired Benson High Principal Frank Hoy's research for his 1978 doctoral dissertation.

By 1971, when the City of Omaha annexed Millard, the Omaha Public Schools had nearly 64,000 students. Millard Public Schools had a little more than 5,100 students.

By 1976, the year Omaha started mandatory busing, OPS enrollment had dropped to less than 54,000 students. Millard's had mushroomed to more than 9,100....

"There was a western migration in Omaha before (desegregation)," Hoy said. Yet he added that his research showed "a spike in that migration that can't be attributed to anything else other than desegregation"....

Low-income students are increasingly concentrated in the Omaha Public Schools. So are black and Latino students. The main urban district is now only 44 percent white. Meanwhile, suburban schools, even within the city of Omaha, are vastly majority white. They have relatively few low-income students.

"Omaha desegregated by school, and (then) resegregated by school district," Hoy said.

Those are just some select passages. I really do suggest that everyone give the full article a read. It does a superb job of calling attention to the troubling current of latent though long-standing racism underlying the situation.

Admittedly, it provides what opponents might consider a one-sided perspective, but the debate really is so lopsided by all measures of conscience and economic justice.

Note that even the suburban school districts recognize the problem, to the extent that they're now crafting their own counterproposal to OPS' plan for consolidation. Ironically, their idea largely amounts to bringing back busing:
The suburban Omaha districts say Nebraska's option enrollment law could be expanded to provide state money for transportation for low-income students. The suburban districts' plan also calls for recruitment of low-income students from OPS into the suburban districts to break up concentrated poverty in the Omaha district.

30 years ago, these same people denounced busing and high-tailed it to the suburbs so their children could escape it. Now, they hold it up as a cure-all to the growing malignancy of Omaha's educational segregation.

Essentially, they'll take in the best of OPS' bad, just so long as their own good (i.e. "white") children don't have to go anywhere.

Funny, sad, unprincipled, and foolish - history will not be kind to those who show so little regard for its lessons, sacrificing community and compassion on an altar of ill-gotten gain.


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