Wednesday, August 10, 2005


You could call the attempt by the Omaha Public Schools to gain a monopoly on public education within city limits the “WalMart-ification” of K-12 education in the metro area. It’d be wiping out what little competitive spark and personality we have now, with our modest array of public school choices.

Is that really what we want?

It’d also wipe out several elected school boards, and yield even more control and say-so to the teachers’ unions and educrats instead of voters, parents and taxpayers.

Meanwhile, everybody from Bill Gates on down knows that competition is better than monopoly, including in education. The optimal size for a school district, both in terms of cost-efficiency and learning productivity, is about 6,000 students; the proposed “superdistrict” would have more than 10 times that.

Meanwhile, educational research is clear that smaller is better for meeting individual learning needs, especially those of disadvantaged children. That means smaller class sizes in smaller schools in smaller districts – the polar opposite of what OPS offers.

Rewarding OPS with millions of new operating dollars and thousands of new students seems ironic given the fact that, for whatever the reason, OPS has one of the largest achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and black, in the country. OPS has unacceptably high dropout rates, mostly mediocre test scores, and ‘way too many minority kids labeled as “learning disabled.”

It has a rigid culture that mostly rejects simple measures that help instill good learning and behavior habits -- like teaching reading with phonics, and teacher-centered instruction instead of group-based instruction -- because they aren’t the current “fads,” like Whole Language and child-centered classrooms.

It seems like an impossible culture to reform, one that other districts obviously don't want to join.

So I’ve been wondering: what would be a better way to resolve this?

I mean, do we have a choice? Must we let OPS puff up into a Macy’s Parade balloon, a humoungus consolidated district with all the overspending, bureaucracy and lower student achievement that comes with it . . . or must we fight to keep the suburban districts the way they are and suffer through a long, community-splitting court case?

I’m worried that, if OPS succeeds, the smart, rich people in west Omaha are going to start a bunch of private schools to step around OPS, and then we’ll have elitism up the whazoo, and the inner-city kids will be even WORSE off.

Either way, we will almost certainly wind up spending beaucoup, beaucoup tax dollars, while still keeping that achievement gap just as wide as it’s been for decades.

As the kids say: eww, eww, ewwwwww.

Well, I think there’s a better way. Now, hold on to your hips. Here it is:

1. Deconsolidate OPS through a petition drive. We could do it, under state law, by obtaining the consent of 60% of the legal voters in all of those districts, including OPS.

2. Imagine the metro area as a big pie. Let OPS keep Central High School, North High School, and their feeder schools, but divide up the rest of its schools to the surrounding five smaller districts. See below for a proposed scheme. All of them have excellent management and staffs, and can give a fresh approach to meeting the learning challenges of the former OPS student populations. There’d be a much more equitable and diverse mix of students and parents this way, and kids could still go to their neighborhood schools.

3. This would go a long way toward equalizing the wealth-per-pupil ratios in all area school districts, making the state aid formula a lot easier. Right now, there are tremendous differences in the amount of state aid per child various districts get, based on whether they are rural or urban, the amount of their property tax base, and so on. A better way would be to set an amount of money that will go for each child – the same amount to all districts across the state. But on top of that, there’ll be a “superfund.” This could be administered by the State Board of Ed. So if a district like OPS can demonstrate that its student body has more expensive learning needs than the average Nebraska student – non-English speaking, poverty, and so forth – they could apply for grants on top of their regular state aid allocation. So they could get extra funding, as long as they show that their curriculum and instruction methods are empirically-based – the “right stuff” for those problem populations. That would be enough sweetener to force schools to switch to phonics-only reading instruction, for example, and traditional math.

4. We need an all-out effort for disadvantaged kids, so I also propose a “scholarship tuition tax credit” program to provide private-sector tuition help for poor kids who would like to attend private schools anywhere in town. Under this plan, businesses would get special tax shelters for donations to corporate scholarship funds for low-income kids. Other states have this in place and it’s great. We also might consider “special education vouchers” for kids of any income level in any district who are labeled as “learning disabled” to go to a private school if they want to, because private schools tend to teach the basics much better and have stricter discipline in place. Anything we can do to make kids who are failing be more productive academically, we need to do, STAT.

5. I also highly recommend enabling legislation so that school districts could pay teachers assigned to schools with high poverty levels “battle pay” – a significant bonus – as a strong incentive to take on those tougher teaching jobs. The union blocks that, but it needs to happen. There also ought to be results-driven merit pay for all teachers, with a system like Tennessee’s value-added assessment, where teachers get bonuses if their kids do better on standardized tests after a year in their classrooms. The worse the test scores, the more room for growth, so the inner-city teachers would make more money, the better job they do with kids. Child advocates say nothing matters as much as having teachers in inner-city schools who want to be there. So let’s give the crucial gift of extra-motivated teachers to those kids.

6. We could set things up to make the redistribution of assets, retirement costs, debt service and other costs associated with those reassigned schools equitable across all parts of town. There’s a state law that says if the voters of a district took on bonded indebtedness, they have to pay up, but if the districts are reorganized in this way, that debt load could be redistributed, too.

7. Here’s how it would shake out:

OPS: Central High and North High, plus feeder schools, and convert unnecessary space at their administrative headquarters, the old Tech High, back into an expanded voc-tech facility, because it never should have been closed down in the first place.

Bellevue: Bryan High and feeder schools

Ralston: South High and feeders

Westside: Benson and feeders

Millard: Burke High and feeders

Elkhorn: Northwest High and feeders

NOW THEN . . .

I have this cynical friend who heard my plan, and replied, “That’s such a good idea . . . it’ll never work.” What he means is that the turf-protecting educrats and union wonks will never let this happen.

Ah, but what if they don’t have any say-so?

You know what? I don’t think they do. I’ve been studying Nebraska’s education statutes. They say that we’re SUPPOSED to reorganize school districts – through both consolidation AND deconsolidation – in order to meet the educational needs of local communities, ease disparities in per-pupil property valuations, equalize educational opportunities, and do other good things that this plan would do.

So, oh my gosh: this plan would be so, so Legislatively Correct. Not to mention fairer for all concerned, than the two bad options we're facing now.

The initiative would be run through the little-known State Committee on the Reorganization of School Districts, which could make this happen upon the petition of 60% of the people in all districts concerned, and HAS to do it if 65% say so.

Want to check it out? Go to
www.unicam.state.ne.us and surf to the school statutes in Chapter 79. See:

79-102. Defines school districts as “embracing territory.” There’s no mention of “city limits.” So much for OPS' “one city, one school district” claim.

79-401. We’re supposed to reorganize school districts for “tax equity, educational effectiveness, and cost-efficiency.” Do we have those now in OPS? Most think not.

79-409. It does say that if there’s a metropolitan class city – one of Omaha’s size – then it “shall constitute one Class V school district.” But guess what? It doesn’t say ONLY one. I think it means at LEAST one. Here's hoping OPS will take another look at that.

79-413. The State Committee for the Reorganization of School Districts (established in 79-435) can change district boundaries upon the petitions of 60% of the legal voters, and must do so with a 65% mandate.

79-441. School district boundaries should be set with top priority on meeting the education needs of local communities, plus other good things mentioned above.

79-476. As interpreted in a court case citing this statute, annexation of territory next to a metropolitan city does not ipso facto put it into the city’s school district. Also note that the excellent July 22 letter from Douglas County Attorney Stu Dornan to OPS attorneys, stating that their “one city, one school district” claim does not appear to be correct under state law, is online at

79-497. There’s language about dividing districts, including the big ones in cities of the metropolitan class, right there for all to see.

Yoo hoo, OPS: that would be you. Ipso facto.

So I was wondering . . . can we talk? :>)

It's not OPS's fault that they have old schools in bad neighborhoods. It's not OPS fault that they are forced to try and teach most of the areas ESL students, it's not OPS's fault that they have a lot of students with a lower economic backgrounds. It's all of Omaha's responsibility to help - consolidate!

(Editor's note: this comment was posted by Anonymous at 7:38 PM Aug. 10 on a June 15 Go Big Ed story on how OPS has a student absentee rate that is twice as high as the suburban districts it seeks to take over. I thought it best to move the comment here and hope others will join the discussion.)
If Omaha thinks that seizing property from the other districts is going to increase the amount of money in their district, they are sorely mistaken. With a larger tax base their state aid will surely decrease leaving them about where they are now, only bigger. If other districts in Nebraska think that by closing Class I schools they will have more money, they are mistaken also. Their state aid will also decrease with additional tax base. It is really just about control and they want it.

There are those who believe that property taxes will go down if Class I's are forced to merge. When have property taxes ever gone down? The state will decrease state aid to schools and spend the other money elsewhere.

More state interference in local schools is not always a good thing. A lot of problems have been created by the state making rules that don't help but rather hinder local schools. The requirements of the state have not really changed anything, just cost more. Schools are better when parents are involved and readily volunteer to help out. The elimination of volunteer cooks in small country schools has only costed money. This is silly when there are parents willing to do it for free.

When forced merging and consolidating occurs less parents are willing to volunteer and be involved.

Forced merging and consolidating in the end will cost more. In Class I's today, parents do most of the repairs that are needed, mow, shovel snow, paint, drive students to field trips and drive their kids to school.

Federal grants that many schools receive for being small will be lost.

Buses will be required--lots of buses. Kids will spend 2 to 3 hours (maybe longer) on a bus everyday. I'm sure this will be really helpful for our state's children.

As schools get larger opportunities are lost for many. A larger school will cut the number of kids who will be able to play sports, be in the school play, sing a solo in the school music program and more.

I could say so much more but will stop here. Just remember the kids are what are important. What is really best for all kids.
I'd just like to say that the second comment on here is really excellent. I hope everybody reads it. To the first comment, I'd like to point out that it's not the low socioeconomic kids' fault that they aren't able to do schoolwork at grade level. As long as their intelligence is in the normal range, there's no excuse EXCEPT AN INEFFECTIVE SCHOOL SYSTEM for a child not to be reading, writing and doing math at a normal pace, no matter how poor that child is, or mixed up the home. The non-English speaking kids are a little different, but most of the underachieving kids in OPS are children of longtime citizens who are deserving of good educations. Those of us who oppose the OPS consolidation aren't trying to blame or punish OPS. We're just trying to tell it like it is. We just want those kids to get educational opportunity, and they're not getting it in OPS as it now stands.
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