By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow up to five public charter schools to be opened in Omaha – and a five-hour public hearing on the bill Tuesday attracted a parade of African American supporters primarily from the Omaha area.
The schools would be publicly funded but independent of the public school board and instead governed by a board of trustees.
Nebraska is one of eight states that doesn’t allow charter schools.
Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, R-Omaha, introduced the bill, LB972, after a similar bill last session was essentially killed by the Education Committee. He said the need for charter schools is primarily in high-poverty areas of Omaha. Omaha Public Schools is a “huge organization” that is not nimble enough to make changes quickly and needs examples in underserved communities of public schools exceeding expectations, he said.
“These schools present an option within the community,” Lautenbaugh said. “This is not a radical proposition.”
He said the lengthy application to open a school would have to be approved by the State Board of Education, which opposes the bill.
“This is not something that would be entered into lightly,” he said.
The bill was supported by Jason Epting, a Nebraska native who is principal of Harlem Village Academies in New York. While 81 percent of the students in his school are on free and reduced lunch and all of them are people of color, he said impoverished children can learn if you create an environment tailored to their needs. His school has a longer school day and kids are required to read 50 books a year.
“Poverty is absolutely an excuse for why students can’t learn,” he said. “Education is the way to break that cycle of poverty.”
Sen. Tanya Cook, D-Omaha, who opposed the charter schools bill last session, said there is a finite amount of public school dollars. She questioned using taxpayer dollars to fund schools that wouldn’t be accountable to a publicly elected body.
Kevin Lytle Jr., vice president of programming for a nonprofit that teaches leadership and life skills to about 200 young urban males in Omaha, said the boys in north Omaha “feel like they’re in a box” and OPS isn’t doing enough for them.
Gabrielle Gaines-Liwaru, an African Culture Connection board member, teaching artist and OPS substitute teacher, said diverse students require customized teaching programs. Her son managed to get into a magnet school, and he graduated from Omaha North High School with multiple scholarships.
The bill was also supported by Bob Evnen, a former member of the State Board of Education, who said while opponents of the bill are good, decent people, it’s difficult for them to be impartial because charter schools would represent competition to a monopoly.
“They really don’t want a level playing field, they want the only playing field,” he said of opponents. “But we know that competition makes us all better. We see the proof around us every day.”
Anthony Vargas, an OPS board member speaking for himself, said as a first generation college student, son of immigrants from Peru and former New York public school teacher, he refuses to accept poverty as an excuse for under-performing schools. He believes in public education but said that’s not a reason to try charter schools.
Cook questioned how he could advocate for using scarce public funds for charter schools.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said his board opposes charter schools, but not autonomy, community support, teacher discretion and other things that create a culture of high expectations in public schools.
Cathy Beecham, a Lincoln mother, opposed the bill, saying although her father runs a charter school, she’s watched charter schools spring up in her hometown of Flagstaff, Ariz., as public schools are shuttered.
“Would you say people are voting with their feet?” asked Sen. Al Davis, R-Hyannis. She countered that charter schools can hire teachers for less money because they don’t have to have certain degrees.
The bill was also opposed by the Nebraska Association of School Boards and Nebraska Council of School Administrators, whose lobbyist, John Bonaiuto, argued that OPS has reconstituted its school board (thanks to a bill passed last session) and hired a talented superintendent and now needs time to revise its strategic plan.
“How long do we have to wait?” asked Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, noting the parents who begged the committee for action.
Jay Sears, lobbyist for the teachers union, also urged lawmakers to wait to let OPS work on reforms.
Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network in Omaha, testified neutral on the bill, saying magnet schools and dual language schools have shown promise, and certain elements (extended day, school year) are proven to work in high-poverty areas, regardless whether in charter schools, public schools or independent schools. The most important factor is socioeconomic integration, according to one study, he said.
“We’ve got to do something now,” he said. “And it’s not just in north Omaha.”
OPS also was neutral on the bill, although its lobbyist said it passed a policy that charter schools should be sponsored by school districts, located within school district boundaries and accountable to the district for student achievement, financing and operations.
Lautenbaugh said OPS’s neutral testimony shows horror stories are exaggerated about how charter schools would be a drain on funds. He noted the school boards association was also against his bill last year to shrink the OPS school board, but now says the new board is working great and just needs more time.
“There’s always an excuse for not doing the next thing,” he said. “The opposition will never relent on this, but you have to give (kids) a chance.”
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