Monday, April 17, 2006

Omaha School Segregation?

The New York Times describes a new law in Nebraska as creating "racially identifiable" school districts:
Ernie Chambers is Nebraska's only African-American state senator, a man who has fought for causes including the abolition of capital punishment and the end of apartheid in South Africa. A magazine writer once described him as the "angriest black man in Nebraska."

He was also a driving force behind a measure passed by the Legislature on Thursday and signed into law by the governor that calls for dividing the Omaha public schools into three racially identifiable districts, one largely black, one white and one mostly Hispanic.

The law, which opponents are calling state-sponsored segregation, has thrown Nebraska into an uproar, prompting fierce debate about the value of integration versus what Mr. Chambers calls a desire by blacks to control a school district in which their children are a majority.

Civil rights scholars call the legislation the most blatant recent effort in the nation to create segregated school systems or, as in Omaha, to resegregate districts that had been integrated by court order. Omaha ran a mandatory busing program from 1976 to 1999.

* * *
The bill contained provisions creating a "learning community" to include 11 school districts in the Omaha area operating with a common tax levy while maintaining current borders. It required districts to work together to promote voluntary integration.

But the legislation changed radically with a two-page amendment by Mr. Chambers that carved the Omaha schools into racially identifiable districts, a move he told his colleagues would allow black educators to control schools in black areas.
One thing that I've learned is never to trust a journalist's description of any law whatsoever; always go the original for yourself. It took a bit of work, but I found the actual bill here (52 page PDF file).

Here's the interesting thing: While the New York Times reporter keeps using the term "racially identifiable," the law itself does no such thing. In fact, it took me a while to figure out just how the law affected Omaha at all. Turns out that section 41 (on page 15) is the relevant provision:
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.
I know that this is the relevant section only because the state legislature's website has an article that contains this passage:
Saying the people in various communities within Omaha need more control over the educational opportunities in their areas of the city, Chambers offered an amendment that will, in effect, separate the OPS [Omaha Public School] system into three districts.

Under the Chambers amendment, the learning community's coordinating council is required to submit recommendations for splitting OPS into separate districts around attendance areas that contain two or three of the seven existing high schools.
It seems misleading to imply that the Nebraska state legislature is explicitly classifying students by race. Instead, it is creating school district lines around existing high schools that happen (so we are told) to correspond roughly to white neighborhoods, black neighborhoods, and Hispanic neighborhoods. I'm not sure why this is really any different from what goes on in most major cities. Why else are there so many inner-city schools that are 98-100% black? What is the principle here: It's ok to send blacks to a neighborhood school that is mostly black, but it's "segregation" to redraw the school district lines so that blacks have more political power?

Note that Chambers thinks there is already segregation in the public schools there:
Chambers said OPS is already segregated because of its system of neighborhood schools. The proposal is not designed to segregate students and redraw district boundaries based on racial lines, he said.

"OPS has put a lot of people on a false trail," he said.
And note that a couple of commenters at La Shawn Barber's site (comments 21 and 27) provide much more information on Omaha events than the Times does.

UPDATE: Ernie Chambers sounds like quite a character:
Chambers is famous for an unsurpassed knowledge of legislative rules, which he uses to derail bills that threaten those he calls the “downtrodden.” This attracts the criticism that he is “the great obstructionist,” better at halting legislation than creating laws. As one colleague observed, “In Washington they call it a filibuster. In Lincoln, they call it Ernie.” Once, Chambers filibustered on the state budget until his colleagues agreed to set aside half a million dollars for a minority scholarship fund. In the 2005 session, he blocked the legalization of concealed weapons, as well as a constitutional amendment protecting the right to hunt, which he said would “trivialize and pollute” the state constitution. In classic Ernie Chambers style, he introduced a raft of riders to the amendment that would protect such other rights as “creating, recreating, conversating and procreating,” “hunting for the link between Noah’s Ark, Joan of Arc and Archimedes,” and “sitting on the front porch on a warm summer evening, drinking a glass of cold lemonade, dreamily watching the silvery moon rise to begin its journey across a darkening velvet sky powdered with stardust.”
Reminds me of Rep. Sedgwick's observation that the First Amendment was not really necessary, because "if the committee were governed by that general principle [that rights should be enumerated], they might have gone into a very lengthy enumeration of rights; they might have declared that a man should have a right to wear his hat if he pleased; that he might get up when he pleased, and go to bed when he thought proper."



Blogger ddlint said...

I grew up in Omaha (born 1967) and lived there until three years ago (I now live in deep south Texas). Ernie Chambers is one of the biggest bigots I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. He hates whites - esp. Catholics of which Omaha is like 45%. (I have heard this directly from his lips - as well as referring to whites variously as 'honkies', 'crackers', and 'cracker eaters'. Growing up in Omaha one of my girlfriends in high school was good friends with his daughter but they could never let Ernie find out about it (she was white). They would walk home from school together after volleyball practice and then have to split up a couple of blocks before her house. His daughter said she was forbidden by Ernie to associate with whites (he wasn't real keen on Asians or Latinos either). He would love nothing more than to see a black school district funded by white money with total control given to a black school board.

3:52 AM  
Blogger aspenthefathom said...

that's awesome you took the time to research the law and really understand what happened legally with the new law, but the new law may still have effects in the area, it's hard to say what the effects of a law are for someone who knows nothing about the people who live there

2:19 PM  
Blogger Naytahwaush said...

The hard reality is that minority groups that want their children in schools atypical of society are doing the young people a disservice. When do they learn to work along with the majority population: Better to assimilate into a common culture as a youngster. I know, I’ve been there.

5:28 PM  

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