Friday, April 21, 2006





Part V: Five Solutions
That Would Be Better and Cheaper Than LB 1024

Last of a series.

Nebraskans could wind up with an exciting, innovative solution to the Omaha Public Schools controversy if they do one little thing:

Take it out of the hands of the educrats.

There are some good ideas within the law hastily passed by the Nebraska Legislature to address the problems of inner-city schools in the Omaha metro area. But there are too many bad ones, stained with the limited viewpoints of lifelong educational bureaucrats and union wonks. What we need is a solution hammered out by a broad, diverse spectrum of citizens that reflects democratic principles, not the “communitarian” ones in LB 1024.

We need elected officials from state and local school boards and the legislature, and maybe a City Council and County Board member or two. Obviously, we need some leadership from people of color. We need someone from law enforcement. We need some parents and grandparents. We need some business people. We need a physician and a social service agency representative.

We need those people to be advised by people in other cities whose schools are beating the odds and significantly raising academic achievement for low-income kids. They’re everywhere: in Arizona, in San Antonio, in Houston, in Florida, in California . . . everywhere but in Omaha. But we can change that . . . if we’re smart about this, and remember that our educational leadership is under our command and at our service, paid by us to do what WE want.

The point is, it should be US telling THEM what to do . . . not the other way around. So far, they’re ignoring what voters and taxpayers want, and how other cities around the country, faced with the same basic problems, are dealing with them.

Remember these two lines:

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same things that aren’t working, over and over, and expecting the result to be different.

And . . .

The communist slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

LB 1024 can’t stand. It’s anti-American. It negates the longstanding American principle that you need to work hard and sacrifice to get ahead, then be a good citizen and watch how your tax dollars are spent to maximize freedom and democracy, and minimize oppression and governmental interference.

There is no way the “learning community” set up by LB 1024 fits. There’s no way it’s a good idea to pool our tax money into one fund and have a mega-board allocating it, relying on central planning, job forecasting, regulatory compliance and top-down mandates. That’s a recipe for disaster. Ask the former Soviet Union.

So the “learning community” has to go.

As for the Van-Choc-Straw Solution, dividing up the Omaha Public Schools into what would basically be a white district, a black district and a Hispanic district: it’s not necessary, and is creating a horrible distraction from the real problem, which is underachievement of low-income and minority kids.

So let’s get some focus here:

Did you notice that the four superintendents pictured on the front page of The World-Herald Thursday are all older, white guys who are lifelong public school employees? How can we expect them to think outside the box and take a risk and do something exciting and cost-effective? It’s unfair and unwise to leave the solution to these men, as nice personally as the four of them are. They are just not the right ones to solve this. They’re not trained for this. They’re mis-focused.

How do we know? Well, did you notice how many times the word “community” was used in the superintendents’ statement? Five times in three paragraphs. Did you notice how many times they mentioned the word “academics” in it? None. See where their focus is?

Did they deplore the yawning racial achievement gap in Nebraska in general and OPS in particular? No mention.

The graduation rate of well over 90% for whites, which is stuck around 50% for blacks and Hispanics? Not a word.

The fact that OPS has more than 260 central-office employees, while the Omaha archdiocesan schools, with just about half the number of kids to educate, operates with six? That got left out.

How about the fact that the majority of low-income children within OPS are not reading or doing math at grade level, and the problem gets worse the older they get and the more money we spend on them within OPS? Somehow, that isn’t on the bargaining table.

Did you notice that two of the other older, white guys who have stepped forward to “help” both used the word “collective” in the story? That was revealing. Obviously, Publisher John Gottschalk of The World-Herald and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey aren’t communists. So it is puzzling. Unfortunately, they’ve apparently bought in to the same “paradigm” as the educrats, that government is the answer to government’s problems.

No, it isn’t. Here are five better solutions, right off the bat, that we could create if we would just get smart and put the right people in charge of this:

1. Dollar-for-dollar tax credits.

Individuals and corporations who donate money to private scholarship funds would receive a 100% tax shelter for contributing money to these funds. The funds provide partial tuition assistance to low-income parents who want their children to attend private school. There are openings in Omaha’s private schools, and I can tell you first-hand, private education should be encouraged and emulated; it’s often a better choice than public education and for poor kids, that goes double. Private schools do a better job with all demographic groups than public schools do, but poor parents can’t take advantage of that because most of them can’t afford it. We need to find ways to help them financially. Tax credits are the purest form of school choice with the least demand by the education bureaucracy for regulatory power over the private schools that benefit from the tax-credit funding. That way, we don’t threaten the autonomy of the curriculum and methodology of existing private schools. But we can still give low-income kids the opportunity and the benefits. Tax credits would save taxpayers the $8,000 per year currently being spent on each Nebraska child in public school, on average, and, because enrollment would decline within OPS in a natural way, it would create smaller class sizes and more per-pupil resources within OPS, though less funding overall, to do a better job with the kids who stay.

2. Universal school choice by lump-summing state aid to education.

Parents would be much more satisfied if they could choose which school in which to enroll their children – public or private, no matter what location, across county lines and no matter whether they pay property taxes or not. There should be no more restrictions on how that money is used than there was on the G.I. Bill after World War II. In other words, allowing for universal vouchers should NOT give the education bureaucracy carte blanche to start interfering with public schools; they should stand back and watch how well private schools do, and learn from them. Very quickly, the public schools, suddenly forced to compete, would improve. There could be simple protections to make sure public-school assignments stay fair for local residents as well as ensuring better racial diversity throughout. Federal grants could pay for door-to-door transportation for low-income parents who opt their kids far afield of their neighborhood school. Then no one would be forced to keep their child in a failing school, and no one could complain that schools are segregated. State aid now averages around $2,500 per pupil per year, which is about as much as private-school tuition is on the grade-school level. There are existing private scholarship funds already going (that offer partial tax credits) that provide tuition assistance for those who need it above and beyond the state-aid lump sum.

3. Allow “niche” schools to develop for early reading and math instruction.

Public education dollars could be better spent on teaching reading and math correctly in the first place, instead of seeing so many kids – especially African-American males -- fall through the cracks and become “learning disabled” or “behavior impaired” and in need of remediation from about third grade on. Obviously, what needs to be happening in those early grades in OPS is not happening. The best way to make it happen is to get the kids into a new structure as they begin formal education, and then, when they’re fit for learning with good skills and habits, and self-control, release them to the regular public-school system. Title I federal education grants and other money could be providing funding for reading experts to start more private, K-2 reading academies outside the public-school environment. An example: the Apollos Preparatory Academy, 3223 N. 45th St. Others include the KIPP Academies – Knowledge Is Power Program – a national private school-management franchise, which could work on a short- or long-term contract as a vendor to the OPS board, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the “niche” approach. Who knows? It could develop into a full-blown K-12 alternative, like the charter schools that Nebraska has banned, one of only a handful of states without them. The focus in these “niche” schools would be strictly on teaching children in kindergarten through second grade how to learn by equipping them with the research-based, tried-and-true methods that have been lost in “progressive” teachers’ colleges and gimmick-ridden public school bureaucracies. Only a handful of people in the State of Nebraska know how to teach a child to read using systematic, intensive, explicit phonics . . . but that’s what all kids need, and especially those whose homes aren’t the greatest language and learning role models. This would give low-income kids a great head start, and refocus public schools on Grades 3-12 with a much greater chance of success.

4. Appoint a “special superintendent” from outside the education establishment.

Break apart the 23 problem schools within OPS and appoint a short-term leader for the 23 principals to shelter them from the OPS bureaucracy, but still be a liaison to the elected OPS school board. Perhaps a contract of three to five years would be in order; it takes about that long to turn failing schools around. Lump-sum each school’s funding based on enrollment and give it directly to the principals; let them allocate the money how they see fit, reporting, of course, to the “special superintendent” for accountability purposes. Secure waivers from collective bargaining agreements from the union so that principals can be free to lead and make personnel decisions. The superintendent could coordinate staff development, curriculum selection, time management and all kinds of other concerns that are different in low-income schools than in the rest of the schools in OPS and elsewhere in the metro area. Someone from a related field, but not exactly the school pipeline, could do wonders to problem-solve and unite warring factions. This solution is similar to the “special prosecutor” often brought in to solve big, big controversies on a short-term basis, then ride off into the sunset when the job is done. I don’t want to create any difficulties whatsoever here, and have not discussed this with anyone, but I believe Omaha City Councilman Franklin Thompson, an education professor for the University of Nebraska at Omaha who is a great guy and a wonderful African-American role model – not to mention a Republican -- is the ideal person for this job.

5. “Shared Responsibility,” dividing up the problem schools among neighboring suburban districts and letting them compete to see who can do the most for inner-city kids.

This is the plan from gubernatorial candidate David Nabity which is probably the very best. But it sank like a stone when Nabity proposed it a few months ago. Why? Apparently, because the idea came from outside the education establishment, it would dilute power from OPS and the union, and increase the workload and risk for the suburban superintendents. But it’s still a great idea. The plan calls for dividing up the 23 failing inner-city schools within OPS and assigning two or three of them on long-term management contracts between the OPS board and each of the surrounding suburban school districts. They could employ integration, English immersion, technology, and team-teaching strategies to their hearts’ content; the idea would be to raise inner-city test scores however they see fit. Relax union hiring, firing and tenure rules and let the principals really lead. Establish merit pay or “battle pay” and tie it to “value-added assessment” – more money for principals and teachers if the kids’ standardized test scores rise. And they will, if common-sense changes are made to zero in on the deficiencies in reading and math, get parents engaged, and forget all the social engineering and bureaucratic wrangling that has contributed to the decades-old failures in OPS with these student populations. Let the teachers in those 23 schools make $10,000 a year more, but work two extra hours a day, or work all summer long, if necessary. The unions could hang on to their onerous rules and regs for the OTHER public schools in the metro area, but once we all see how great schools can be when they’re union-free . . . it could be a fantastic opportunity for us all to quit doing what we keep doing even though it doesn’t work, because the “union says.”

Most of all, we need a plan that brings everybody in to solve this massive problem, not just the educators themselves. No matter what we do, these things should start happening, too. Examples:

-- Parent volunteer groups in the ‘burbs should each adopt an inner-city school to mentor parents and teach them how to interact with teachers, put on fund-raisers and so forth.

-- Churches each adopt a school and help with money, supplies, volunteers, even sack lunches and cookies.

-- TeamMates, Big Brothers / Big Sisters and other mentoring organizations should be stepped up with more donations and volunteers from around the metro area.

-- Civic clubs could raise money for merit pay for inner-city teachers the way the Buffett Foundation rewards selected OPS teachers each year.

-- The Junior League of Omaha, the Assistance League, the Boys and Girls Club Guild, and other service organizations could be persuaded to drop everything else and concentrate on inner-city education for their volunteer priorities.

So this five-part series comes to an end.

The question is, what happens next? Go Big Ed will publish your comments and ideas next week. Send them to
swilliams1@cox.net Let’s put our heads together . . . and come up with a winner.

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