Friday, April 14, 2006

Undoing a half century of civil rights

The state of South Dakota has mounted a frontal assault on the famous Roe v. Wade decision that forbade states from outlawing or significantly restricting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, trying to reverse more than three decades of judicial precedent.

Not to be outdone, the city of Omaha, Nebraska, a skant 160 km [100 miles] down the Missouri River, is taking on a 52-year-old Supreme Court precedent: Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown, the Court struck down the "separate but equal" principle, specifically as it applied to public education, but also more broadly as it applied to public accommodations. Yesterday, Nebraska's unicameral Legislature [unique within the United States] voted to split the Omaha public schools into three separate districts: one predominantly white, one predominantly African American, and one predominantly Hispanic.

The move would not require students who found themselves in the minority within their new district to relocate into their assigned racial turf, and it would even allow Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other races to attend school in any of the three new districts. The plan, known as LB1024 [PDF], supported by Nebraska's only African American state senator, would divide large school districts into smaller units with a student population of no more than 25,000.

LB1024, as signed by Governor Dave Heineman, removes some interesting language from existing state law:

The Legislature also finds and declares that desegregation and racial integration in the public schools are of critical importance for the future of this state and that those school districts with desegregation plans may, as authorized in section 79-238, adopt standards which deny the educational options for parents and that such school districts are not required to consider, in denying such options, any of the factors [size of schools, distance, availability of transportation, course offerings, extracurricular activities, quantity and quality of staff, and test scores] in subsection (1) of this section or any other factors considered by parents or legal guardians in seeking enrollment for a child in a school district in which they do not reside.
In other words, racial integration in the public schools is no longer of critical importance in Nebraska. That's an interesting legislative finding.

Even I am not willing to wade through the entire 52 pages of mind-numbing legalese of LB1024, but, as I understand it, it would take the various school districts now existing in Douglas and Sarpy Counties [Omaha is in Douglas County; Sarpy County is adjacent to the south.] and combine them into a single Learning Community (a new structure created by this law), but also divide them into smaller school districts. The Learning Community would set a unified tax rate for the entire two-county area and collect the taxes, portioning the revenues out among the various school districts to spend according to their respective budget plans. One point on which I am very much unclear, though, is how the arrangement will create a majority-black and a majority-Hispanic district: ¾ of the students in the Omaha area are white, about 12% are black, and about 8% are Hispanic, plus various other races and mixed-race students. Within the current Omaha Public Schools (OPS), just over half of the students are classified as "minority," but the white students still outnumber the blacks and Hispanics combined.

The OPS has been trying to coerce the other school districts within the city limits of Omaha to merge into OPS, based on a state law establishing the principle of "one city, one school district." OPS feels that its tax base on a per-pupil basis will be significantly enhanced by including the entire city of Omaha. LB1024, though, would be a bizarre combination of merge and divide. Indeed, some existing "school districts" would be preserved, but subordinated to a new layer of bureaucracy, the "Learning Community." It seems that the intent of the new law is precisely to create "separate but equal" school districts — separate in terms of policies and funding priorities, but equal in terms of access to sources of revenue.

Section 41 of LB1024 is the part that would divide the OPS into smaller districts. It was introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers of the 11th district, in northeastern Omaha. His district includes Fort Omaha and the Omaha Home for Boys, but it does not extend east to Carter Lake or the Omaha airport. It also includes Creighton University and the Great Plains Black Museum, but does not extend south to the Joslyn Art Museum, the Convention Center and Arena, or the Civic Auditorium. Senator Chambers maintains that the Omaha Public Schools are already segregated in practice, and that dividing the district into smaller entities will allow minority communities to have greater control over the schools in their neighborhoods. Here is the specific language of his proposal, which is now part of the law signed by the governor:
Sec. 41. (1) On or before July 1, 2007, each learning community coordinating council shall submit a plan to the state committee to divide any Class V school districts in the learning community into new Class V school districts organized around the attendance areas of existing high school buildings which are not currently being used exclusively for specialized programs, with two or three such high school buildings in each new Class V school district. Such new Class V districts shall consist of school buildings having attendance areas which are contiguous. The effective date for reorganizations pursuant to this section shall be July 1, 2008. Such reorganizations shall not be subject to the approval or disapproval of any school board pursuant to section 37 of this act.
Note that "Class V school district" currently refers specifically and exclusively to the Omaha Public Schools, just as "Metropolitan Class City" refers specifically and exclusively to the city of Omaha, although Lincoln is more than ¾ of the way there.

The governor said today that the measure is already having the truly intended effect, which is to get the Omaha-area school boards, PTAs, and other interested parties, talking about how to address the serious inequities of the current framework. It's a sad statement, though, if the only way to bring about that dialogue is by exercising what could reasonably be called a "nuclear option" dropped from the state upon the metropolitan area. In particular, the state attorney general, Jon Bruning, stated officially that the bill may violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that lawsuits will be filed. I'd say that last bit is a sure bet.

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