The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

‘Re-segregatedâ€TM Omaha Schools to be Separate, Not Equal

by Megan Tady

A plan by Nebraska legislators to codify the effective racial segregation of Omaha city schools contains language allowing for huge disparities in funding of the newly designated districts.

Apr. 21, 2006 – When students in Maddie Fennell’s sixth-grade class asked her if Nebraska’s new bill to divide Omaha schools along racial lines meant the civil rights movement was meaningless, she did not know how to answer.

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"The kids are saying, ‘Adults always tell us we should all get along together and go to school together and get to know each other’s cultures. But now they’re saying that’s not what we have to do?’" said Fennell, a teacher who has worked at predominantly black Franklin Elementary for eight years. "They’re wondering what’s going on with all of this."

The sixth-graders are not alone in their confusion. Many educators, community members and other students in Omaha’s black and Latino neighborhoods are trying to make sense of a bill that could "reorganize" the Omaha public-school district, comprised of 45,000 students, into three separate districts: one predominately white, one largely if not mostly Latino and one majority black.

And while supporters of the bill argue that it would fund the three districts fairly, the legislation offers the potential for drastically unequal funding.

Nebraska lawmakers passed the bill 31–16 on April 13, and Governor Dave Heineman signed it into law the same day.

The legislation came as the final answer to a nearly year-long struggle by Omaha Public Schools (OPS), ostensibly intended to determine how to create equitable education opportunities within the city’s expanding borders. The "One City, One School District" bill that was under consideration would have enabled the Omaha school district to annex majority-white schools just outside the city, where the majority of students are people of color.

Although the legislation’s text does not mention race, even proponents acknowledge that it will define districts essentially along color lines.

In the end, lawmakers opted to not only dissolve the One City, One School District plan, but to dismantle and split OPS. Each new school district will have its own school board, its own superintendent, and presumably, when the lines are drawn, its own defining racial identity.

Critics of the bill charge that it will effectively re-segregate the city. Some question its constitutionality. Although the legislation’s text does not mention race, even proponents acknowledge that it will define districts essentially along color lines.

Ernie Chambers, the state’s only black senator, introduced the amendment that mandates dividing the school district. Chambers maintains that Omaha’s schools are already effectively segregated into sections called "attendance areas," which will also guide the drawing of the new districts.

"You cannot segregate something that already is," Chambers told TNS. "You cannot re-segregate something that has never ceased to be segregated. If these ‘attendance area’ boundaries don’t violate the law now, they cannot be considered to violate the law simply because you substitute the word ‘district’ [for] the words ‘attendance area.’"

Adding to the frustration is the fact that the lawmaker who spearheaded the amendment was a person of color.

Chambers’s reassurances appear to offer small comfort to communities of color in Omaha.

"People here are really up in arms about it," said Patricia Bass, who co-chairs Omaha Together One Community (OTOC). "We’re just all floored." OTOC is a multiethnic, interfaith community organization.

Adding to the frustration is the fact that the lawmaker who spearheaded the amendment was a person of color.

"Being a minority, [Chambers] says he stands for ‘our views, our opinions, our voice,’ but how can he do that when they don’t match?" said Taylor Anderson, a bi-racial junior at Benson High School. "I don’t think that he’s representing the African-American voice in Omaha, because it’s not mine. I don’t agree whatsoever with what he’s proposing."

Chambers, who has developed a public image as a voice for the marginalized in Omaha, claims he pushed for the bill to empower communities where segregation already exists.

"Here you have students sitting in a segregated school in a segregated neighborhood asking if this bill is going to bring about segregation," Chambers said.

"I think it’s a little naïve, because a marginalized group will never have full control of their school," said Miguel De La Torre, a Latino-rights activist and director of the Justice and Peace Institute in Colorado. "Because of the inequality in this country along racial lines, the control of one’s school is in comparison to everything else and really misses the dynamics of how people work."

The original bill, introduced by Senator Ron Raikes, was intended to settle school-district boundary disputes. Along with Chambers’s amendment to restructure the school district, Raikes’s bill will oversee the formation of a "learning community" in which all Omaha-area school districts will pool some property-tax revenue to help fund schools in a potentially more equitable manner.

Many students fear the government-sanctioned divisions will exacerbate racial tensions in the city.

Chambers insisted the districts would be funded according to their respective "needs," but he would not elaborate for TNS on how a school’s need is to be determined or what safeguards will ensure fairness.

According to TNS’s analysis of the bill, in fact, each district will be able to set its own property taxes in addition to the shared pot, assuming the to-be-determined common tax rate does not reach $1.05 per $100 of property value. Since property values are typically higher in the predominantly white section, where homeowners can generally afford higher tax rates, the variable tax-rate clause could potentially result in wildly disparate revenue streams for each of the three districts.

Sen. Raikes confirmed TNS’s analysis, conceding, "A higher-wealth district would receive more dollars per cent of valuation than [would] a lower-wealth district. Yes, that’s true."

Despite this disparity, Raikes insists the bill is a step toward correcting the inequalities between schools and that it makes the school districts "as equitable as you can get."

But some doubt the funding system will be beneficial.

"If history is a guide for us, the black schools and the Latino schools will end up with the shorter end of the stick," De La Torre said.

Ben Gray, co-chair of the African-American Achievement Council in Omaha, was one of the only people TNS spoke with who knew that the bill does not provide for equitable funding of the various school districts. "Here’s the problem: A lot of people aren’t aware of what’s going on," Gray said. "It’s such a comprehensive bill that most people aren’t aware of what it actually says."

Many students at the Omaha’s multi-ethnic Central High School are both disturbed by the bill, and angry at lawmakers for passing it.

"I can’t believe it," said Esmeralda Lucero, a Latina senior at Central. "We’ve come so far. It just seems like it’s common sense, so why would they pass a bill like this?"

Although students would be allowed to stay at their schools under the bill, many students fear the government-sanctioned divisions will exacerbate racial tensions in the city.

"The next step will be: you can’t cross Dodge Street because you’re Hispanic, and Dodge Street will take you to the black side," said Oscar Ortiz, a Latino senior at Central. "And you can’t cross 84th Street because that’s where white people live."

Alvin Samuels, a black Central senior, said: "The bill sends the message that they’re giving up on promoting diversity. They’re dividing and segregating us off. We can’t fix it so we’re going to just go our separate ways."

Parents of students are also worried about the ramifications of the bill.

"I think the inner-city kids are going to lose out on opportunities that other districts may get," said Regina Anderson, Taylor’s mother, who is black. "I think they lose out already. The schools are different. The activities are different. I think this bill is just going to make things worse instead of better."

OPS reports that a majority of students within its current boundaries live in what it considers poverty.

"It’s not just a race issue; it’s a class issue," Anderson said.

Chambers, however, is adamant that the bill will give students more opportunities, not fewer. He claims the bill will foster integration by offering transportation to enable students to attend any school in the learning community with available space. He also pointed out that a task force will be established to examine issues of diversity and integration in schools.

But people like Central social-studies teacher Rod Mullen predict students of color won’t see improved access to majority-white schools. "These suburban schools can say, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you, but we don’t have any room.’" Mullen said, "Unless you’re a really good basketball player or a really good student, they won’t have room for you."

While much of the anger over the bill is directed toward Chambers, critics also note the significance of a nearly all-white, wealthy, mostly conservative legislative body passing the racially charged bill.

"I think that speaks more loudly as to the intention of the bill than one individual," De La Torre said. "Whose will within that society is being legislated?"

Beyond Omaha, schools are re-segregating throughout the country. A 2006 study published by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that nationwide since the 1990s, after the Supreme Court relaxed its earlier decision mandating school desegregation, the percentage of black students enrolling in predominately non-white schools increased from 66 percent in 1991 to 73 percent in 2003.

"What we’ve seen where [the US Supreme Court’s 1954] desegregation orders have been dismantled is a return to segregated schools that often have high poverty rates, less teachers, less parental involvement and a higher drop-out rate," said Chungmei Lee, co-author of the report. "Once schools get re-segregated, there’s a whole host of factors such as this that make these schools unequal."

Despite court blessings for rolling back desegregation efforts, many critics of the Nebraska bill still question its legality.

"It’s questionable whether this is even constitutional," Lee said. "I feel strongly that this will be contested."

Meanwhile, community members in Omaha aren’t giving up on working toward diversity.

"When Senator Chambers says we’re already segregated – true – I’m not going to argue with him," Fennell said. "But does that mean we just give up and stop the fight? Or does that mean that we dig in double hard and we as a community really look at ourselves and say, we’ve got to change this?"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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This News Article originally appeared in the April 21, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Megan Tady is a staff journalist.

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