Sunday, January 08, 2006

School Districts and Liberty

I'm not quite certain how things are done in other parts of the country, but I am pretty sure that school districts are generally considered a big deal. After all, all politics is local, and all that. However, here in Nebraska, and especially in and around Omaha, they are a HUGE deal. I'm not quite sure what it is about Omaha, maybe it's the vast assortment of school districts comprised in a small area, or the peculiar nature of Nebraska politics, but several things have combined to make Omaha have an extremely Byzantine atmosphere when it comes to school districts. And as usual, it always comes back to liberty and individual choice.

First off, here's some background on the situation: Omaha Public Schools (OPS) has invoked a law passed in 1891 that states "the Omaha School District will have sole authority for schools within the city limits of Omaha." The way OPS has interpreted this law is their principle of "one city, one district," which is to say that any school within the Omaha city limits should belong to OPS. This might sound self explanatory, but you have to understand Omaha area school districts. Omaha's expanion has been anything but planned, which means that smaller outlying communities are generally annexed haphazardly after they have had a chance to grow into a separate community, rather than before. Some of these communities are Elkhorn (pending a lawsuit), Millard, and Ralston. Each of these communities has developed separate school districts, and in the case of Millard, has lived in coexistence with OPS for over 30 years after the town of Millard was annexed by Omaha. In addition to this, there is a separate school district, Westside School District, that is surrounded by OPS but is protected from annexation by a 1947 law.

Head spinning yet? Anyway, the bottom line is that several previously independent smaller school districts are now being threatened with annexation by a larger district. Since this decision has been rather controversial, one must ask the question why. The primary answer is money, while a secondary one is social control. The school districts that are being annexed are all located in "West Omaha," which is the newer, more upscale, "new money" part of town. As to be expected with such an area, it is predominantly white. Obviously, OPS is composed of a variety of racial and economic groups, but it contains the majority of minorities in the Omaha metro, and the majority of poverty, as shown by this document containing a series of graphs from OPS.

So, the reason for the annexation is first and foremost, a money grab. As shown by the previously cited document, wealth is concentrated outside of OPS, and OPS has the lowest property value per child of any school district in the metro area, so they have decided that in order to increase their funds, they are going to force prosperous citizens in western Omaha to subsidize the education of children from less prosperous areas. The administrators of OPS may couch their decision in language of "making a quality education for ALL Omaha children a reality," but the bottom line is that richer people from a small area who previously were paying tax money to go towards educating THEIR children, and their children alone, are now going to be forced to pay money to go towards educating children from a wider area, including many poorer areas. Income redistribution, pure and simple.

In addition, there is another, even more sinister motive at work in the annexation proposal. Several people in support of the annexation have mentioned that separate school districts have in effect caused racial segregation in the schools. Never mind that we tried this social manipulation crap with our schools in the '70s with busing, and never mind that it failed miserably. Several bigwigs in the education establishment are upset that the legislature has given people choice in their education by passing a law that allows people to choose which school their children go to, irrespective of school district. God forbid that we actually allow people to choose where their children go to school. Anyway, as shown in this article, the OPS Superintendent is rather upset about the whole racial situation, going so far as to say that the option legislation has caused "white flight."

So, we have income redistribution and racial meddling. The final issue in this whole saga is that OPS went about the whole annexation process acting like a gangster with the biggest gun. Rather than asking the other school districts to open a dialogue about the possibility of implementing the 1891 law, OPS simply declared that it was going to take over the other school districts, and that they hoped to "continue to remain available to meet with the other superintendents, to get their valuable input in transitioning to one city, one school district." No talk about the possibility of compromise or

Bottom line? We have a large school district acting like a bully in order to implement several annexations that will cause severe income redistribution and restart the social experimentation that we finally dumped in 1999 with the replacement of busing by the option program.

Explain to me how that is right?

In any case, this issue will probably be resolved, or at least furthered along in the 2006 session of the Nebraska Unicameral, which was called into session a few days ago. I'll keep you posted.

In other (but related) news, in a slightly ironic move, the Bellevue School District has used the same 1891 law and the same OPS interpretation in order to argue that one OPS high school and one OPS middle school located inside the Bellevue city limits should become part of the BPS system. Hey, if you aren't going to play by your own rules, even if you make them up as you go along like OPS does, you really shouldn't be making up the rules in the first place.

(A slight clarification (this would be "below the fold" if I had that capability on my blog): I slightly oversimplified things in order to make the post flow; OPS is only allowed to annex parts of the other school districts that are within the Omaha city limits. As a result of a gentleman's agreement between the cities of Ralston and Omaha, Ralston has avoided annexation by Omaha. Therefore, there are only a few Ralston elementary schools that would be annexed in the grab, and the Ralston School District would remain wholly intact, minus some elementary schools. The same cannot be said of the Millard School District, however. Because the area of Millard has been annexed by Omaha, the "one city, one district" plan would result in OPS controlling most of Millard's schools, effectively destroying the district. As for Elkhorn, I alluded to their situation in the post. The city of Elkhorn has been annexed by Omaha, but is fighting the annexation in court. Until that annexation goes through, OPS can only annex a few elementary schools. However, when the annexation goes through (and it is likely that it will) Elkhorn residents will lose their last vestiges of local control if the OPS plan is allowed to go through, as the Elkhorn School District would cease to exist.)

Okay, so it was more than a slight clarification, but I just wanted to get the absolute facts out there so I didn't have to fact correct later. As I said, I didn't include it in the body of the post because I thought too much info would interfere with the flow. Ed.

Hey, I have an editor! I only need three more and I'll have the MSM's vaunted "four layers of protection."