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Plan for Omaha Schools Raises Segregation Concerns

May 31, 2006 at 5:45 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: State Senator Ernie Chambers, the only African-American in the Nebraska legislature, has, in effect, tossed a live grenade into his hometown of Omaha.

ERNIE CHAMBERS, Nebraska State Senator: I lament the existence of segregation right now in the Omaha public schools, and in residences, and in employment.

SPENCER MICHELS: The city, and especially its school district, is in an uproar over an amendment he wrote to a state education bill that, critics charge, would re-segregate the Omaha schools.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: What I’m trying to do, to give some local control to the parents whose children go to these schools.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chambers’ amendment, now a law that goes into effect in 2008, would divide the Omaha School District into three separate districts based on existing neighborhoods, most of which are segregated. School officials say, no matter how it draws the lines, one district would be predominately white, one black, one Latino.

For Chambers, a former barber and civil rights leader, the idea is to let minority-led school boards run the schools that educate minority children since, he says, white-run schools have failed to improve black and Latino graduation rates and reduce dropouts nationwide.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: Omaha is already segregated residentially. The real issue is one of power. We believe that the people whose children attend schools ought to have local control over those schools, a concept very familiar with white people.

SPENCER MICHELS: The two-page Chambers amendment was tacked onto an elaborate school reorganization bill, known as LB 1024.

It got support from rural legislators, who were guaranteed additional school funding for their often tiny school districts. And senators from the mostly white school districts that ring Omaha also voted for it, since it eliminated the power of Omaha to annex some of their schools.

The new law is making Omaha, here on the banks of the Missouri River, live up to its old Indian name, which means “against the current.” Opponents charge that LB 1024 flies in the face of more than 50 years of efforts to desegregate the nation’s schools.

Dividing by race

Ron Raikes
Nebraska State Senator
The bill does create three smaller school districts, but it is clear that the statute allows those school districts to be created a number of ways

SANDY JENSEN, Omaha School Board President: It's become the butt of late-night comedy shows, and it is pretty embarrassing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sandy Jensen is president of the Omaha School Board.

SANDY JENSEN: No one in a million years would have ever dreamt that they would have added what I refer to as the "Raikes-Chambers Segregation Amendment" onto this bill, which separates a school district along the lines of race. It's just absolutely absurd, ridiculous and unconstitutional.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Nebraska law does not promote segregation, says State Senator Ron Raikes, who runs a farm and cattle operation outside Lincoln. He wrote most of the bill and claims its intent is to ensure diversity.

RON RAIKES, Nebraska State Senator: The bill does create three smaller school districts, but it is clear that the statute allows those school districts to be created a number of ways, and it is certainly possible to have very, very diverse school districts among those three.

SPENCER MICHELS: Raikes argues that the law does not dictate specific boundary lines or racial make-up. In fact, its main feature is that it creates a so-called "learning community," connecting the 13 school districts around the city. Each would have to plan for diversity or be dissolved.

RON RAIKES: You gain the advantage of having individual school boards that directly connect with their constituents, parents, students, and so on, but you have also the benefit of the broader collection, the broader group that can address the major issues of diversity of schools, of educational opportunities, and of financial base.

SPENCER MICHELS: Chambers, unlike his co-author, has given up on diversity. He's long been an outspoken leader of Omaha's black community, a city that had deadly race riots in 1919 and again in the late 1960s.

In this 1966 documentary, he confronted a local white minister over race relations.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: The problem exists because white people think they're better than black people, and they to oppress us, and they want us to allow ourselves to be oppressed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today, Chambers says residential segregation is a fact of life and that won't change anytime soon.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: Since the residential areas are segregated, the neighborhood schools are, also. Whenever you have a non-white school district or community, that's where you're going to find the most inferior schools.

"This is a great school"

Tony Gunter
Elementary School Principal
There's nothing bad about kids going to school with one another who are in the same race, the same color, the same background.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Omaha School District admits about half of its elementary schools remain principally one race, but says the children are getting a good education.

Belvedere School lies in the heart of an African-American community, with homes on large lots surrounded by lawns and parents dropping their kids off early in the morning.

SPENCER MICHELS: A neighborhood school, 90 percent of Belvedere's students qualify for free or reduced lunch at a school that is 80 percent black.

TONY GUNTER, Elementary School Principal: That's by choice. Parents still want to be here; this is a great school, a great community, and they choose to be here. I mean, there's nothing bad about kids going to school with one another who are in the same race, the same color, the same background.

SPENCER MICHELS: In this Latino neighborhood in South Omaha, Gomez Primary School, which runs a bilingual program in Spanish, is 87 percent Hispanic. The problem with all this, says Ernie Chambers, is that minority children can do well in elementary school but fail later on.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: These children go to school; they are bright; they are alert; they are curious. They're what little children are, and the further they go in school, the less curiosity they have, that light that shown so brightly from their eyes begins to dim.

Racism present in Latino community

Ernie Chambers
Nebraska State Senator
Whenever you give adults, parents, members of the community a stake in the education of the children who represent the future, they take an interest.

SPENCER MICHELS: The best hope now, he claims, is to let minority administrators work to improve minority schools.

ERNIE CHAMBERS: Whenever you give adults, parents, members of the community a stake in the education of the children who represent the future, they take an interest, they participate in making sure that the schools do as they should.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Omaha public schools admits minorities have lower test scores and higher dropout rates, but says it is attacking those problems with special programs and increased resources.

Since the end of mandatory school busing in 1999, the district has pushed to racially integrate high schools and middle schools using open enrollment, magnet schools, and voluntary busing.

At Central High, in the city's heart, the results are obvious: This highly-regarded school is 48 percent Caucasian in a city that is about 70 percent white.

We talked with three Central High students of different backgrounds, including Brittney Ruffin, a 17-year-old junior who doesn't want her school to return to its segregated past.

BRITTNEY RUFFIN, High School Junior: There was a black stairway and a white stairway. And they would, you know -- there was no interaction between anybody, and that was years and years ago. And we came a long way to become one of or the most diverse school in Nebraska, and it just seems like the law is taking us back in years, back in time.

MICHAEL GREENBERG, High School Senior: Omaha is kind of segregated, but they're moving forward. I mean, that's a huge thing to have happen, desegregation.

OSCAR ORTIZ, High School Senior: We never have fights, like, "OK, because you're black, and I don't like black people, I'm going to fight you," or something like that. No.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Omaha's fast-growing Latino community, racism is ever-present, according to Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Separate is not equal

Tommie Wilson
Local NAACP Chapter President
NAACP opposes, opposes segregation. Separate is not equal, and that's what we want to make sure that you understand. We fought too hard for integration.

JONATHAN BENJAMIN-ALVARADO, Political Science Professor: You would detect, in almost any major city in the United States today, there's an undercurrent of racism. There's also an undercurrent of classism that goes on, and we don't want to talk about it a lot of the time, but it exists.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Alvarado does not think breaking up the Omaha School District would help.

JONATHAN BENJAMIN-ALVARADO: I don't see that you can take a single school board and, with some sort of Solomonic decree, chop it into three pieces and have it be nearly as effective as it is right now. The Omaha public schools does a remarkable job of educating young people.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the black community itself is divided over Ernie Chambers' plan. Troy Johnson owns a store in north Omaha.

TROY JOHNSON, Omaha Resident: I bow down to Ernie Chambers, and I like the bill, and I like Ernie.

SPENCER MICHELS: As a child, he was bused to a school with white teachers.

TROY JOHNSON: Those teachers weren't ready for us, and we definitely weren't ready for them. They weren't trained and prepared to handle little black kids, you know? So, therefore, after that, I mean, my education went downhill.

SPENCER MICHELS: So this is a sort of historic neighborhood, huh?

TOMMIE WILSON, President, Omaha NAACP: Oh, yes, this is a neighborhood with a lot of history.

SPENCER MICHELS: Former teacher Tommie Wilson also admires Chambers, but only up to a point. At 72, she's the president of the local NAACP chapter, well-aware of racial divisions in Omaha, past and present, but resistant to creating three race-based school districts.

TOMMIE WILSON: NAACP opposes, opposes segregation. Separate is not equal, and that's what we want to make sure that you understand. We fought too hard for integration.

SPENCER MICHELS: The NAACP has filed a federal suit against Nebraska's governor and state officers, charging the new law violates Brown v. Board of Education. Some critics want the legislature to come up with an alternative to the law by January.