It’s been half a century since public schools in America were desegregated. But now, in Omaha, Nebraska, a new law will divide schools into districts — districts identified by race. It has sparked a heated debate over whether it’s a return to a troubled time in America or a step towards true equality.
More than 50 years after the United States Supreme Court said American children should not be separated by the color of their skin, Omaha students may soon head to class in school districts essentially divided by race.
Ernie Chambers, the Nebraska state senator behind the new law, says Omaha is already divided economically, socially and racially. “Segregation,” he says, “exists right now.”
“Our children are failing, the schools are failing,” Chamber says. “The gap between the achievement of white children and black children in their respective schools is not narrowing.”
Chambers says each group should be allowed to govern their own schools.
Under his plan, Omaha public schools would be split into three districts. Under one scenario, one district would be 70 percent white, another 57 percent black and a third 40 percent Latino.
Critics, like Sandra Jensen, the president of the Omaha School Board, call it a step back.
“This is 2006, for goodness sake,” Jensen says, “And what they’ve done is gone back to pre-Brown vs Board of Education.”
The division would not come until 2008 and many experts believe it won’t survive a court challenge.
“This is a dangerous sign of the fragmentation of the United States into separate racial communities,” says Harvard University’s Prof. Gary Orfield, adding, “It would be a horrible precedent.”
Student Veronica Barrientos agrees. “In my opinion, I think it’s an embarrassment,” she says.
Some students, like Justin Blackson, fear it sends the wrong message. “That just kinda makes everything that our civil rights leaders did... kinda puts it in vain,” he says.
But Chambers believes minorities are not getting a fair deal. “Those who have get, those who have not get left,” Chambers says, “White people are making the decisions, and, as a result, the schools don’t have adequate equipment, supplies, textbooks.”
“He is absolutely incorrect,” Jensen says, “We have done a very good job. We’re not perfect, but we’ve done a very good job.
Whether or not they agree with Senator Chambers’ division of school districts, some Omaha teachers maintain that inequities within the education system do need to be addressed.
“It’s bringing some covert, some under the table concerns that we’ve all had for a long time,” says teacher Mamria Walinski, “and it’s sitting on the front burner.”
And then, says teacher Gary Kastrick, there’s the stigma of segregation. “I thought we were at least at the place where we could not use that word in the same sentence as school."
Omaha is a city divided over what’s best for its children.