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Omaha’s “Radical Experiment” for School Integration

The American Prospect recently featured an article by Sharon Lerner that details an exemplary pioneering effort to combat racial segregation in schools in Omaha, Nebraska, called the Learning Community. It pools resources and allows student movement to help make schools more socioeconomically diverse. But while Lerner argues that this “radical experiment” could serve to be a national model, local resistance may be indicative of potential animosity to similar efforts in other places. If better racial integration in schools is a focus we want to make to improve public education (and I think it should be), this situation provides a prime example of why appropriate legislation, funding, and winning hearts and minds are all integral to success Lerner provides a brief summary of the history of school integration efforts, noting that while court-ordered busing helped diminish racial segregation and increase African American academic achievement, the initiative was politically unpopular and by the 1980s most cities, including Omaha, had abandoned or sharply reduced the practice. Today, black and Latino students are more segregated than at any time in the last 20 years, poverty concentrations at these schools is higher, and children typically perform much lower academically.

Omaha Public School District (OPS) is no different: though African Americans account for less than 13% of city residents, they make up more than one third of OPS students (and about 11% of residents are Hispanics, comprising about 20% of OPS). Lerner writes that the city’s African American community is the fifth poorest in the nation, and experiences high violence and crime. Likewise, OPS receives less in taxes than surrounding suburban districts, even though meeting low-income student needs is more expensive.

Unfortunately, the catalyst for the Learning Community came not from widespread regional support, but from an obscure state law. In 2007, OPS lawyers discovered an old (circa 1891) and overlooked law that allowed OPS to annex other surrounding districts, and OPS launched a “One City, One School District” campaign aimed at incorporating 21 suburban schools and more equally distributing resources and students.

This plan was predictably unpopular with the more affluent schools. Though many in the community had previously supported the creation of a more equitable system—including billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, the local chapter of the NAACP, and the publisher of the Omaha World Herald—it wasn’t until the suburban districts faced potentially losing their independence that they came to the negotiating table.

While the negotiations leading up to the implementation of the Learning Community initiative were both slow and sometimes hostile, ultimately a coalition of superintendents agreed to the plan which was then passed in the Nebraska Legislature in 2007. In it, an elected body is tasked with creating more equity in schools. District boundaries are still intact, but some tax money is pooled and distributed to schools based on a needs-based formula, and students in need are provided with free transportation and access to less impoverished (and less diverse) schools.

So far, the Learning Community has created programs to help close achievement gaps among elementary school students (like intensive reading programs), and has provided for student transfers to increase school diversity. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch have access and free transportation (which is key) to schools where low-income students comprise less than 40% of the student body. More affluent students get preference to get into schools where more than 40% qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Students choosing this option are typically motivated by the desire to experience a more diverse educational experience—the article interviews one girl from an affluent region who transferred to an OPS school to experience having peers of various socioeconomic backgrounds and from more than 40 countries—as well as for academic and extracurricular programs funded by the Learning Community.

One school in the Learning Community illustrates both the potential success of the initiative, and the severe challenges it faces. Learning Community leaders have especially focused on Underwood Hills Focus School, hoping it could serve as an example of what could happen more broadly when students are placed in the right environment. The elementary school has almost exactly the socioeconomic breakdown of the larger Learning Community (and in turn of the region), and offers programs catering to both high achievers, and those who need academic help. Results have been highly promising: while only 48% of OPS students meet or exceed state reading standards, 75% of Underwood students in the same economic bracket met this standard, and the school as a whole scores better than the state average. As would be expected, demand is high to attend the school.

It is disconcerting, then, that Underwood Hills is struggling to stay open. Of the three superintendents who began the intensive focus on the school, two have been replaced by successors who lack their predecessors’ commitment and pulled out citing the financial cost of participating. This espoused rationale fell apart, however, when the superintendents still refused to continue collaborating even after Susie Buffett, daughter of Warren and herself a graduate of OPS’ Central High, saved the school by offering to cover all of its costs for at least one year through her foundation.

Indeed, there has been consistent opposition to the Learning Community since its inception, with complaints about districts not complying with requirements, a lack of collaboration, and more overtly, two lawsuits by residents of two of the 11 participating districts aimed at dismantling the initiative.

Further, the number of students transferring to create more socioeconomic balance is relatively small—1,560 so far, and, as Lerner points out, it is unclear how other cities and regions could replicate Omaha’s attempts, since the initiative came out of an obscure local law rather than widespread support.

The article cites a proposal by Richard Kahlenberg—who I have written about before, here and here—as a potential solution. He points out that current federal law discourages districts from accepting low-income students since schools are rewarded via test scores. Instead, he argues for a system which allots federal funding for schools who take in students who would contribute to socioeconomic diversity.

I think Kahlenberg’s proposal deserves serious consideration, but regardless another part of the solution must be convincing the public that school integration is an important investment. Unfortunately, this article presents another example of the current state of affairs in which the more affluent segments of the public tend not to support it, with some exceptions.

I don’t want to unfairly demonize anyone. There are no doubt real constraints facing those in a position to implement systemic changes like this—like suburban superintendents who already have their hands full—and those constraints should not be discounted. And it’s understandable that more affluent parents are concerned about the impact changes to the system could have on their children. The article provides an anecdote relayed by an OPS lawyer in her conversation with a mother from a wealthier district in the Learning Community. Lerner writes that the mother said, “If I understood correctly, you’re telling me that my child has 10 crayons and these kids have no crayons. And you want us to give some of our crayons to those kids. Now that’s probably fair. But as a parent, I’m never going to get behind anything that takes away my child’s crayons.” Perhaps this is where legislation can play a role, to address the roadblocks to systemic change that self-interest can create—even when the rationale behind the self-interest is understandable.

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