Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. How’d we let the Omaha Public Schools define what this nearly year-old, divisive, disruptive controversy is all about? It’s not about more money and more integration for disadvantaged kids. The real issue is how come they aren’t doing a darn sight better with the already-generous funding we’re already giving OPS?

As the Legislature leans into the tape and tries to come up with a workable solution to OPS’ demands, let’s keep the focus where it belongs: on what really is best for the kids.

Here are some points to ponder:

Increasing the Bureaucracy:

State Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln has shepherded LB 1024 onto the legislative floor. But it ought to get the crook (in the sense of the old vaudeville forced departure, not anything to do with criminal corrections!). Why? Because it panders to the spendaholic education bureaucracy and wouldn’t do a thing to help academic achievement of African-American and other low-income children in Omaha. It panders to the massive school debt and construction forces, too, since the come-on is the promise of fabulous new, interdistrict magnet schools.

Backwards Step in School Management Philosophy:

The Raikes plan to put all metro area school districts under a superboard to divvy out funding and consolidate political power away from local school boards is the polar opposite of what other states are doing. The trend all across the country is to DEconsolidate – reorganize into smaller schools with less bureaucracy and more power over spending, hiring and curriculum at the local level. Everyone else is empowering principals more, and central administrations less. Why are we backtracking and doing what everybody else knows is wrong? See

Disadvantaged Kids Needs Are Different:

Consolidation hurts low-income and non-English speaking kids more than any other student population because they get lost in the shuffle. The Raikes “learning community” would further subjugate what disadvantaged kids need academically, because policymakers would be so busy trying to placate the people with political power – chiefly, whites with money.

What whites with money believe their children need from schools is vastly different from what disadvantaged children really do need. Instead of creating equity, we would be harming the hopes and opportunities of poor children even more than we do now. What’s smarter? Local control. The www.noexcuses.org project by the Heritage Foundation, and similar research by www.urbancure.org, show that strong local control is the answer for better schools for disadvantaged kids, not more spending, not fancier school buildings, and not more bureaucracy. Also see the article, “They Have Overcome: High-Poverty, High-Performance Schools in California,” on www.pacificresearch.org

Getting to the Bottom of the Problem:

The Raikes plan would sidestep the big question: WHY has there been a racial achievement gap within OPS despite decades of escalating spending? To plug that gap, it doesn’t take millions more dollars, more regulations and more employees doing the things that we already know aren’t effective. To plug that gap, we need to change what we’re doing, not do more of the same. The answer is to create a competitive educational marketplace – not to insulate the bureaucracy and entomb our kids in the status quo of overspending and inertia.

Where is the Governor?

The people involved in coming up with this bill are all very nice and very smart, but let’s face it: they’re lifelong bureaucrats. Nobody else has been given a voice – not parents, not business people, not other professionals who understand the needs of disadvantaged children. Haven’t you noticed that there have been few, if any, African-Americans speaking out about this? What are there, just one or two people of color on the OPS school board? Doesn’t that tell you something?

Frankly, this plan comes from people who don’t know any other way than to throw other people’s money at problems, and add more layers of government and bureaucracy. School superintendents are government employees, after all, and Gov. Heineman has been a public servant all his career. Sen. Raikes has been a university professor, a bureaucratic setting if there ever was one. People who have only worked within a bureaucratic setting can only think of bureaucratic solutions. You can’t expect much more from them, and certainly, regulations, compliance and systems all have their place.

But this crisis requires an executive – someone with vision, who can pull together a diverse group of problem-solvers, who is comfortable with change and knows how to take a calculated risk, to find a solution that will work cost-effectively. Bureaucrats only know about compliance. The governor has been ineffective in leading in this crisis because, frankly, he’s a fish out of water when it comes to thinking outside the bureaucratic box.

The best thing the Legislature could do would be to appoint a “special mediator,” or someone from the private sector, to negotiate a way to build in competition and school choice that would solve this problem outside court.

Why Can’t We Use This Opportunity to Innovate?

Nebraska is in the backwaters of education progress across the country in helping disadvantaged children. We are underachieving in both the classroom (the graduation rate for African-Americans and Hispanics hovers at around 50% in this state), and in our statewide public policy. The OPS crisis is a wonderful opportunity to fix problems that are decades-old. But we are blowing it and doing the same old, same old: throwing money at the problem with little evidence that it’ll do any good. We have to change our ways and come into the 21st Century in our approach to K-12 education.

For example, Nebraska is one of only a handful of states which do not offer meaningful school choice or tuition tax credits. You can see what other states are doing – and we’re not – on
www.AllianceforSchoolChoice.org, www.edreform.org, www.edexcellence.net, and www.friendmanfoundation.org It’s long past time that we got school choice going.

What Should We Do?

We have many options. It could be that holding OPS’ feet to the fire under No Child Left Behind, which requires districts to offer meaningful school choice to kids in failing schools, would solve the problem without all this hubbub. But OPS, like most other urban districts, is reluctant to promote “disenrollment” of its revenue stream and power base, so they don’t appear to be doing that. Maybe it’s time we forced that issue.

We might also cut off their state aid to force them to teach reading with phonics only, and to teach elementary math computation, handwriting and other basic skills in the early grades. Nothing succeeds as quickly as cutting off funding, and nothing would help disadvantaged kids more than getting the basics.

Also, the plan described by David Nabity, the gubernatorial candidate from Omaha, earlier this year, has promise. The OPS school board could divide up 23 low-achieving OPS schools among the eight suburban school districts, letting them compete to see who can do the most for disadvantaged kids. That’s just one example.

Others include:

-- vouchers that provide tuition assistance for low-income children to attend private schools if they choose instead of public schools;

-- charter schools, which cost 80% as much as the traditional public school because they are freed up from stultifying regulations and can focus on particular learning needs such as reading instruction if local parents and teachers prefer;

-- contracts between boards of public education and private-sector school management firms, who use common-sense private-sector strategies to sharply increase attendance, discipline and test scores.

For example, OPS could hire a specialized school management company dedicated to low-income schools, the Knowledge is Power Program,
www.kipp.org, to reorganize and manage its struggling inner-city schools on a long-term contract basis. OPS does business with countless private-sector vendors for countless goods and services; why not hire experienced, specialized school management with a great track record of turning things around for disadvantaged kids?

We need to support and incentivize good teachers, too. Our neighboring city, Denver, is going to a merit pay system for teachers based on value-added teaching, as shown by increases in student test scores from year to year. The only thing keeping us from offering something like that– extra salary for outstanding work – to teachers with more challenging student populations is the same old story: the bureaucracy. We need to get rid of it, not add more hurdles that keep us from rewarding good teachers.

Omaha is lucky to have an active local chapter of the Children’s Scholarship Fund (
www.scholarshipfund.org) which transforms people’s charitable donations into partial tuition assistance to private schools, and we need to expand it. A similar program in San Antonio (www.ceofoundation.org) has helped disadvantaged kids make amazing progress in just a few years. See also Milwaukee’s program, www.pave.org

Nebraska is one of the few states that does not have the Teach For America program, sending eager and smart young teachers into inner-city classrooms like an American Peace Corps (www.teachforamerica.org). We need that!

Finally, let’s tackle the biggest problem: reading. The amount of money we could save by offering tuition tax credits to parents willing to forego public education – saving us thousands per pupil -- combined with changes in the way we deploy our Title I federal funding, could solve the huge problem of reading underachievement in inner-city schools, which is the No. 1 cause of the racial achievement gap. See

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