Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Omaha: One City, Period.

by Ryan Anderson
Schools Controversy Highlights Nebraska's Political Shortcomings

I'll admit LB 641 was an imperfect and messy solution to a poorly defined problem. It's frustrating that compromise required the creation of yet another layer of bureaucracy, and there's certainly no guarantee that the separate districts will keep their promises to cooperate in a way that minimizes redundancy and waste.

Actually, there's no guarantee that any of the provisions in this bill will do what they were intended to do and eliminate the shameful achievement gap between black and white, wealthy and impoverished. It's probably fair to characterize this law, as one recent letter to the editor did (OWH, 6/2/07), as a "social experiment with no basis for guaranteed success." There are no guarantees here. This is a gamble. But considering the magnitude of the problem and the absence of any solution offering "guaranteed success", a gamble was precisely what the doctor ordered.

The few alternatives the Legislature could seriously consider -either ignoring the problem entirely, or funding study after study while allowing more and more kids to fall through the cracks- were morally unacceptable. There is at least some hope that any serious overhaul of the status quo might produce the grassroots optimism, innovation and dedication necessary to make our schools work. But by embracing a bold and equitable plan to confront the issues of race and wealth, the Unicameral has given their bill a fantastic chance to succeed, and that is reason enough for our enthusiasm and praise.

But even if I thought these concerns were legitimate, they wouldn't explain the size and volume of 641's opposition. No, there is a bigger issue at work here, one that's more familiar and more universal to Nebraska politics in general. Let's take another look at those letters to the editor:
I moved to Gretna years ago to avoid the big-school problems of the Omaha Public Schools, and I dislike being dragged into it now. The schools in towns like Gretna or Springfield have nothing in common with OPS and shouldn't be a part of it. (OWH, 6/2/07)

The message the Legislature has sent to Sarpy County students is clear: Those who reside in a district that values education and produces high-achieving students will work hard and be rewarded by having funds seized from their district and given to districts that need it more. That concept is straight from Karl Marx: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." Sarpy County needs to find a legal way to kill this awful plan or look into seceding from Nebraska. (OWH, 6/1/07)
Sound familiar? This is the "rugged individualism", the "my way, my money, my rights" attitude that has defined Nebraska politics to a greater extent than either conservatism or Republicanism.

The problem with this attitude, in part, is that I hesitate to even call it a problem. Frankly, it's endearing. It's the very quality that makes this state "home". And it's done a lot of good for politics on both a state and a national level, in both parties and in every decade.

Without this attitude and our subsequent identification with the loner and the iconoclast, we may never have produced figures like Democrat William Jennings Bryan or Republican George Norris, statesmen who played invaluable roles in the Progressive reforms of the early 20th century and the passage of the New Deal. And yes, if any solution should ever arise from this mess in Iraq, it may come in large part thanks to the efforts of current mavericks like Senators Hagel, Nelson and Kerrey, all of whom demonstrate a unique willingness not only to cross party lines, but to break them down.

But even when the lone wolf shows remarkable success at building consensus, he cannot by his very nature build a community. That is the nature of Nebraska: politically, culturally, at every level and in every corner of the state. LB 641 is an affront to that sense.

That's the only real gamble. Our schools will work for us when we work for each other. But, frankly, that's asking a lot. It's asking us to overcome history and inertia. To part with the very quality that makes this state home.

Is there some middle ground, some way we can build that sense of community while maintaining our individualistic identity? Maybe, but it starts with us recognizing the need for that same consensus building and risk taking in a realm outside our government.

It's not enough to just win elections. If it were, Omaha would be in far better shape than it is today. Policy can only do so much, it is we the people who must find that optimism, innovation and dedication necessary to make this city work. We must find it in ourselves. Our rugged, egotistical selves.

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