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NAACP Threatens Suit Over Omaha Redistricting

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

In Omaha, Nebraska, the NAACP is threatening legal action to block a new state law that divides the city's public schools into three separate districts organized along racial lines. Critics have condemned the legislation as a political ploy that constitutes state-sanctioned segregation.

But the bill's principal sponsor, Ernie Chambers, Omaha's only black senator insists it will give the disenfranchised control over some troubled schools, and provide a quality education to all the kids in the system. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

State Senator Ernie Chambers is the man behind legislative bill 1024. He says it would right some existing wrongs in the schools.

State Senator ERNIE CHAMBERS (Democrat, Nebraska): My provision says that in OPS--the Omaha Public School System, which is the largest one in the county--already being segregated, and in the process depriving poor students of all races of an educational opportunity. We should, during this reorganization, break it into three districts.

KEYES: The division required my Chambers' amendment to the law would be based on the existing attendance area boundaries of Omaha's high schools. It would create one mostly African-American district, one mostly Latino, and one that is primarily white. Chambers says the segregation in schools mirrors the residential segregation that exists in Omaha and in other large cities.

State Senator CHAMBERS: Nothing is going to remove segregation anywhere in this country. So we have to provide quality education in all of the buildings where children will attend, regardless of where they're located.

KEYES: The national media, parents, local officials, and lawmakers alike have been in an uproar.

State Senator PAT BOURNE (Republican, Nebraska): Frankly, I think it's a mess.

KEYES: Nebraska State Senator Pat Bourne, who is white, disputes Chambers' claims that schools of color are under funded. He says 58 percent of the city schools are more diverse in neighborhoods in which they are located, and he thinks the next step is that someone will sue.

State Senator BOURNE: The line of cases is clear. This is absolutely state-based segregation and I think the law will ultimately struck down.

KEYES: But this controversy is as much about control and power as race. This city ran an integration busing program from 1976 to 1999. Last June, the district moved to absorb more then two dozen mostly white schools within city limits, but controlled by other districts. The suburban districts resisted, and an impasse ensued. School board President Sandra Jensen.

Ms. SANDRA JENSEN (President, Omaha School Board): We also said we are willing to sit down and talk with our fellow school district members at any time and find out if there's not some compromise to get at the issue about children.

KEYES: Omaha met privately with three of the ten suburban district superintendents last week, and more discussions are planned.

Ms. JENSEN: We need to sit down. We need to talk. We need to make sure that we are all about children and making sure that they get an equitable education in diverse settings, and that we will be able to accomplish it that way.

KEYES: There's been speculation that Senator Chambers amended this law to force local school leaders to deal with some long-standing issues like funding. Jensen vehemently disputes critics like Chambers who say inner city schools are being slighted financially, saying the district spends between $500 and $1,000 more per year per child to make up for what she calls the experience gap some students bring to school.

She also insists that high schools and middle schools are integrated, and that the disproportionate racial makeup in some elementary schools is due to parents wanted their little kids to go to school close to home rather than be bussed to other neighborhoods.

But there is racial gap. The graduation rate for whites in Omaha's public schools was 77 percent last school year. For African-Americans, it was 61 percent, and it was 58 percent for Latinos. African-Americans in grades four, eight, and eleven scored about 20 points lower than whites on the district's reading test last year. Senator Chambers says district schools should offer the same quality education to all of its students.

State Senator CHAMBERS: There's going to have to be a guarantee that the children I'm concerned about will have an education.

KEYES: There is some speculation that the discussions underway might result in revised legislation that won't be so drastic and retains only the parts of the law mandating financial equity and an integration plan. But many schools officials agree the point is they are talking, and they're talking about what's best for the children.

Allison Keyes, NPR, News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.