Tuesday, April 11, 2006


By A’Jamal-Rashad Byndon and Susan Darst Williams

Byndon is an African-American parent of an OPS student, and the son of one of the original intervenors in the Omaha Public Schools desegregation busing case. He favors the plan by Sen. Chambers to break up OPS into three smaller districts.

Williams is a German-Danish-American parent of four daughters in the Omaha metro area who operates a free website for parents and taxpayers on K-12 education,
www.GoBigEd.com She opposes the Chambers plan and the proposal it is paired with, LB 1024, by Sen. Ron Raikes to create an overarching “learning community” structure for public school districts in the Omaha metro area. Instead, she favors a plan to give tuition tax credits to parents who send their kids to private schools and save taxpayers the expense of a public-school education, which frees up more tax dollars to educate the needy. And she favors the promotion of dollar-for-dollar tax credits for individuals and corporations which make donations to special scholarship funds that provide tuition assistance for low-income children to attend private schools.

The authors, longtime friends, present an alternative solution from the parents’ point of view.


A’Jamal: “One city, one school district” won’t work. The racial and economic inequities in the Omaha Public Schools were allowed to fester for decades by the same people who now claim to know how to solve them.

Susan: But A’Jamal! We already HAVE educational equality in Omaha. EVERYBODY’S mad . . . equally!

A’Jamal: It’s comical, all right. Whites correctly say that racial and socioeconomic segregation in our schools is the civil rights issue of our day. But they have little or no track record of addressing that issue in their public or private lives.

Susan: So you’re for Sen. Chambers’ proposal for a “Van-Choc-Straw” set-up, with separate “white,” “black” and “brown” school districts?

A’Jamal: Well, it would be insane to leave things the way they are, and keep giving more money and power to the people who’ve shown that they don’t get it when it comes to meeting the needs of disadvantaged students.

Susan: I don’t like the giant “learning community” that Sen. Raikes is proposing for that very reason. The evidence nationwide is for decentralization, smaller schools in smaller districts, and back-to-the-basics curriculum for disadvantaged and non-English speaking children. The Chambers-Raikes plan yanks us further down the path of mindless standardization and out-of-control spending on the things that don’t really help. We need a new paradigm. We need school choice. It’s embarrassing that Nebraska is one of only a handful of states without meaningful school-choice options. The Chambers-Raikes plan runs counter to the evidence from everywhere else that smaller districts and more competition and choice are best for kids.

A’Jamal: Well, what would be innovative and effective, and make us look good nationwide, is to acknowledge we have a huge racial achievement gap, downsize OPS, and get around the bureaucracy better than we’ve been doing for the last few decades. Then we can address the reasons why we have this gap.

Susan: But other big cities have gaps, too.

A’Jamal: Yes, but we should know better by now. OPS has messed up the educational opportunities of many, many families by not giving the community more input or say-so into the quality of the education. It has to stop. This may be our only chance. Plus, OPS has lied about too many things. Look at how they handled the busing challenge. Even the fact of not having open meetings last year over their takeover plan illustrates that they are more concerned about preserving their turf than anything else. If I could share all of the stories that I’ve heard over the years about the pure incompetence and outright negative mentality of OPS administration, then you would get my drift.

Susan: Well, it sure is interesting that there are about 260 central-office employees for OPS, and only about SIX for the Omaha-area Catholic schools, though of course, they have only about half as many kids as OPS.

A’Jamal: Yeah, so there should only be TWELVE people laying scratch out of that TAC Building every day at 3:30.

Susan: Ha!

A’Jamal: But seriously: I am beginning to understand the frustration that too many parents have had with board members who act as if they are professional water carriers for an overpriced superintendent. We can do better in this city.

Susan: Well, how come the African-American leaders have been so quiet so far?

A’Jamal: That proves my point. They’re not behind this. OPS needs to have its house cleaned and Sen. Chambers is the only one helping us to control a system that for years that has been running out of control. If parents had control of the educational funds, how many of them would pick their present schools or administrators? Enough said.

Susan: That’s why I think the answer is school choice. Plain and simple. The private schools are doing a better job with the same demographics as OPS is dealing with, for about half the cost. What’s not to like about that? Let’s invest in that. Take state aid, average it into a per-pupil lump sum, and let parents decide where to invest it. They could keep it with OPS, or the school of their choice. They would feel “vested.” They would have clout! They wouldn’t be dingleberries riding on a “freebie” and disdained by the bureaucracy, they would be powerful consumers, with options to take their money elsewhere if the right things aren’t happening for their child. It would work. We could revive the Class I schools, too, which is a must, and create a bona fide educational marketplace in the cities and towns. Most of all, we could create options for low-income parents, who now feel that they have none. Then Nebraska would be “the good life” for all income brackets, as it should be. OPS would have all the incentives it so badly needs to get with it and improve their product, and be competitive, and start meeting basic academic needs instead of adding all these insane “programs.” Then we wouldn’t have all the fighting and ugliness of this Chambers late hit. It would be over, the smoke would clear, there would be no bodies floating down the river with knives in their backs, and we could all join arms and sing “Kumbaya” while our kids’ ACT scores rise to the top of the country.

A’Jamal: Well, there are enough people who are mad at (OPS superintendent John) Mackiel and his puppets that I think a lot of them would leave if they could. I am angry that OPS disrespects so many parents in the community with their arrogance and plantation mentality. What is sad is all of the do-gooders who have never spent any time dealing with education or kids, but who are now “community experts” on these issues. OPS needs to be exposed for who and what they are: a bunch of money grubbers who need to develop better outreach and relationships with parents.

Susan: But A’Jamal! That disdain for parents and taxpayers isn’t limited to inner-city schools. We ALL deal with it! Public education is a monopoly. That’s how monopolies act, up and down the demographic ladder. To the extent we’ve let it happen, this whole controversy is our fault. We’ve been lazy, lousy bosses. We shouldn’t have let them get this hooked on overspending. The test scores in inner-city schools have been so bad for so long, people think that’s the way things have to be. But they don’t! The Heritage Foundation’s “No Excuses” project proves that. And there are so many other success stories for high-performing schools with high-poverty student populations. Why shouldn’t Omaha be one of them? The OPS school board is at fault, too: they should have gotten into private management contracting or pushed for charter schools years ago.

A’Jamal: It just shows how little political pull you have in this state if you don’t have money.

Susan: Well, one thing I wish inner-city people would think about: we DO have diversity in suburban schools. It’s just based on factors other than race. We probably have MORE diversity in other areas than the inner city does. My neighbor lady, for example, is a metallurgical engineer who rebuilds cars for fun, and she recently volunteered to do traffic safety at the local grade school wearing a pineapple on her head.

A’Jamal: Now, THAT’S diversity.

Susan: I WANT diversity for my child – including race – but I want all children lifted up, not squashed flat to the lowest common denominator. That’s what standardization and consolidation do. It’s wrong, and it’ll hurt our country very badly in the long run. I’m just saying that with a different funding mechanism provided by school choice, we can provide educational equality for an inner-city child of color and a white suburban child without lawsuits and all this fighting. They don’t have to sit side by side with identical resources and identical curriculum, and yet both can fully have their needs met and their educational opportunities maximized. It’s not the money and it’s not the power, it’s the Three C’s – curriculum, competition and choice.

A’Jamal: Well, those are ideals. But this is the real world. Seriously: they never would have desegregated OPS decades ago if they hadn’t been dragged into court like a whining dog and beaten with the evidence by African-American mothers in tennis shoes who just wanted a quality education for their children.

Susan: That’s what everybody wants.

A’Jamal: To be beaten with tennis shoes?

Susan: No! Quality education! For every child in the state. Poor kids don’t have it right now, and spending more money or adding more bureaucratic layers won’t give it to them. We’ve proven that over the last 30 years.

A’Jamal: Well, the academic focus has been totally lost in the propaganda war.

Susan: You mean the black community isn’t 100% behind OPS? That’s how OPS makes it sound.

A’Jamal: Again, I say: we just want quality education for our kids. But OPS treats us as if we were invisible. They don’t care what we think. When this issue broke last year, I was asked if I would convene a group of parents and African-American community leaders to listen to Mr. Mackiel (the OPS superintendent) make his pitch. I said I would, if they would send me a video of the public hearing OPS held in August 2005 with an astonishing amount of racist and elitist comments that I wanted to review, and if I could speak in advance with Mr. Mackiel’s senior staff members. That was over 10 months ago. I’ve heard nothing since.

Susan: So there’s no unity on what was supposed to unify us, this “one city, one school district” push?

A’Jamal: People of color working for this so-called integrated district, with 56% of its students of color, are complaining that they are not afforded the opportunity to enter into the discussions. Before OPS can challenge other districts, it must first demonstrate that it respects its own stakeholders.

Susan: Well, I can’t imagine that any parents, urban or suburban, would want their children’s educations to be under the same old management and the same old structure, year after year, with no tangible signs of meaningful improvement.

A’Jamal: What’s really behind the “one city, one school district” push is that OPS can continue to hide the atrocious underachievement of minority kids by folding them in with all those high suburban test scores. It’s another way to keep us invisible.

Susan: Well, we have a real problem there. A 2004 report, “Losing Our Future,” by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the Urban Institute (
www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu) showed that the white graduation rate in Nebraska is 81.7% but the black graduation rate is 45.2%; for Hispanics, it’s 46.9%. A lot of those kids are in OPS. The report shows data from the largest 100 school districts in the country. OPS ranks 98th in size, with one of the worst graduation rates among those 100 largest districts, 54.3%.

A’Jamal: My point exactly. Why reward that with more schools and more children to oversee?

Susan: We don’t want a long court battle, a bunch more spending, everybody feeling nasty about each other, or a big, new bureaucracy, yet those are the only options on the table in the Legislature and from OPS.

A’Jamal: All loser ideas.

Susan: As attractive as Cafeteria Surprise with a side of Mystery Meat.

A’Jamal: So urban and suburban schools have more in common than people think.

Susan: So what WOULD work?

A’Jamal: If the Chambers plan doesn’t survive, then I agree with you: school choice. Get as many kids as we can into existing private schools. Encourage more private schools to open up. Promote more public-school choice, too, so that OPS kids can opt in to suburban districts in greater numbers. Free transportation could be provided by No Child Left Behind or other government grants. Kids in failing schools are already supposed to be given a ticket out under NCLB, but I don’t see that happening. Let’s make it happen. Free the slaves of the school plantation and get them into schools where principals are free to lead, teachers can teach, and parents have clout. That’s the only hope for turning things around.

Susan: So if, in response to all this fuss, OPS drops its threats, thinks first of the kids, and comes forward to the Legislature with a workable plan to give dollar-for-dollar tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to a K-12 scholarship fund, which provides tuition assistance to private schools for low-income kids, you’d be for it? You’d even direct traffic outside school wearing a pineapple on your head?

A’Jamal: I’d go a step farther. I’d take Mr. Mackiel and the OPS school board to dinner . . . at the McDonald’s or Burger King of their choice.

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