Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The Nebraska Legislature gave second-round approval Tuesday to LB 1024, which would divide the Omaha Public Schools into three new, smaller districts, and plunge the Omaha metropolitan area into a massive new governance lock-down structure similar to an Educational Service Unit, or ESU.

Nebraska is one of only a handful of states without any meaningful school-choice options to help disadvantaged students, such as charter schools, private-contract “niche” schools, vouchers, or tax credits for private scholarships. Even though the Chambers proposal to deconstruct OPS is a great idea, long overdue, it would be moot, because of the constricting power of the overarching “learning community” structure. It would be as if the poor, black kids escaped the plantation and ran right inside a new, bigger, walled prison.

LB 1024 would draw Nebraska’s public education scheme even further from freedom and innovation, and more toward statewide governmental control of public schools. It’s no coincidence that its architect, Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln, chairman of the Education Committee, is the same person who led the wipe-out of the Class I country schools last year – a key step toward statewide standardization -- though that issue is still percolating in the courts and the rural communities may still have the last laugh.

Gov. Heineman might have shot himself in the foot politically by demanding that some bill, ANY bill, come out of this legislative session. In the rush, a lot of ground was lost to the big-government types like Sen. Raikes. But now people are coming out of the woodwork – and the billionaire boardroom – to find fault with this one, including its pressure to increase spending while voters are screaming for tax relief. So there’s still hope that cooler heads may prevail.

Even the venerable Sen. Ernie Chambers might not realize the extent to which this change would act as a barrier to efforts to innovate to meet the distinctly different educational needs of low-income, minority and non-English speaking kids. The three mini-OPS districts wouldn’t have any more autonomy than existing districts under the Soviet-style “learning community” paradigm. Ironically, the master political manipulator may have played poor kids right into the socialists’ hands.

While no one disagrees with the intent – finding a way to improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged students and make peace among the warring school districts in Omaha – a consensus is gathering that this cure is worse than the disease.

A quick look at the fiscal notes for LB 1024 show some disturbing changes that would take place in such key areas as administrative control and command, retirement, accounting, and much more. Search for LB 1024 in the Bill Finder on

It appears that this radical change would convert Nebraska from a state with among the most separate school districts in the nation, to one with just a handful of mega-districts governed by a centralized board, like today’s ESU’s. It’s a giant step toward standardization and statewide conformity and alignment. So it’s the opposite of fostering local control.

And that ain’t Nebraska-y.

What really makes it look bad is how contrary it is to other programs around the country set up to address racial underachievement. Nebraska looks like a dinosaur compared to them, and it’s embarrassing.

GoBigEd has advocated a modest amount of school choice for low-income children, decentralization of public districts, and tuition tax credits to inspire competition and the development of niche schools and other private alternatives. We wouldn’t NEED to break up OPS; it would happen naturally. We wouldn’t NEED to create all kinds of new governance structures and regulations like the “learning community,” because the kids would be doing BETTER.

That’s what’s happening in other states, in stark contrast to the LB 1024 scenario:

-- “Program on Vouchers Draws Minority Support”

From Thursday’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/06/education/06voucher.html

About 1,700 low-income, mostly minority students in Washington, DC, areattending 58 private and parochial schools at taxpayer expense through thenation's first federal voucher program, now in its second year.

Last year, parents appeared lukewarm toward the program, which was put in place byCongressional Republicans as a five-year pilot program, But this year, itis attracting more participation, illustrating how school-choice programsare winning over minority parents, traditionally a Democraticconstituency.

Washington's African-American mayor, Anthony A. Williams,joined Republicans in supporting the program, prompted in part by aconcession from Congress that pumped more money into public and charterschools. In doing so, Mr. Williams ignored the ire of fellow Democrats,labor unions and advocates of public schools.

-- Tuition assistance to get low-income students into private schools is wise public policy and happening all across the country. Nebraska should add a dollar-for-dollar tax credit available for individuals and corporations who contribute to private scholarship funds, as Arizona does.

GoBigEd has written about how effective this is for needy kids:

Here’s background on Arizona’s program:

Here’s a national list of private-scholarship funds, including the address for the Omaha one:

And here’s a national website:

-- Decentralization is the order of the day, not centralization. The consolidated “learning community” concept in LB 1024 contradicts what’s happening all across the country, with a clear trend toward devolving more power to individual principals, smaller school districts, smaller schools, and privatization to tackle the problems of disadvantaged students. From Sunday’s New York Times:

New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is once again rethinking the nation's largest school system. He has hired Chris Cerf, former president of Edison Schools, the commercial manager of public schools in 25 states, and Alvarez & Marsal, a consulting firm that revamped the school system in St. Louis and is rebuilding the system in New Orleans . . . paid for with $5 million in private donations . . . “A top goal is to find ways to relax much of the very centralization put in place by the Bloomberg administration and give principals a far freer hand, provided schools can meet goals for attendance, test scores, promotion rates and other criteria. An ideal system, they suggest, would put schools near the top of the organizational chart and potentially eliminate or change dozens of administrative jobs. Hypothetically, principals, now supervised by a local superintendent, might choose either to keep that overseer or to use the money to hire a different achievement adviser. Support services, like counseling programs, could be outsourced.

-- “English Immersion” is much better and far cheaper than “English as a Second Language” style bilingual education, so OPS does NOT need substantially more money to educate non-English speaking pupils.

From the March 21 Los Angeles Times:

The latest test scores of California's English learners show that immigrant children are continuing to do well under English immersion, defying the doomsday predictions by opponents of 1998's Proposition 227. The mandate that schools teach children "overwhelmingly" in English, rather than in their native languages, has resulted in a large, demonstrable improvement in English proficiency.Last year, more than 1.3 million English learners took the California English Language Development Test. For kindergarteners and first-graders, the exam assesses listening and speaking skills. For second through 12th grades, it also measures reading and writing skills.In 2005, 47% of California's English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency — "early advanced" or "advanced." By comparison, only 25% scored in the top two categories in 2001, shortly after many school districts began eliminating their bilingual programs. That's a remarkable improvement.


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