Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Omaha Experiment

Posted By on Tue, Apr 18, 2006 at 9:47 AM

Cities like Nashville should be paying attention to what's happening in Omaha: A bill passed by the Nebraska legislature and signed into law last week splits the Omaha school system into three districts, one mostly black, one mostly white, and one mostly Hispanic. Supporters say that with schools already essentially segregated because of segregated housing patterns, this is about giving minorities local control over school system resources and outcomes. Opponents see it as a throwback to the days before Brown v. Board of Education, a move that is neither morally tenable nor constitutionally acceptable.

The Omaha move can be viewed as a referendum of sorts on our half-century national experiment with school integration (with the sad realization up front that after 50 years we would still refer to it as an "experiment"). This angle is pursued in a brief essay by NYU law professor Jack Balkin, who argues that more than just racism is at stake:

I don't think we can reject what Nebraska has done as simple racism. Nebraska's law should be applauded if it in fact secures equal funding for black and white school children and gives black parents real voice in the education of their children, the sort of voice that many white parents have long had. But before we can embrace Nebraska's plan to create special black and Latino districts, we first have to decide whether to give up on the integrative ideal behind Brown v. Board of Education-- the idea that the public schools belong to everyone. I don't think we've given up on it quite yet, nor should we.

Nor, I'd like to think, will the Equal Protection Clause allow us to. Nor should it. Omaha is doing the wrong thing, even if for some of the right reasons. Others cities will watch their experiment with interest, but, one hopes, without an impulse to imitate. On the other hand, all we may end up watching is a successful court challenge.

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