The writer is an Omaha school board member.
Every child should have access to a high-quality education not by chance (the chance your child gets a great teacher), not by lottery (the hope your child gets into a focus school), not by privilege (the ability to send your child to private school), but by right.
It is this fundamental principle that caused me to vote against the 2012-13 Omaha Public Schools’ budget. I refuse to vote for a budget that has $36 million allocated for the transportation of students without the data to support that type of investment.
Almost two years ago, I challenged OPS to make me a champion of busing by showing me the data supporting increased academic achievement as a result of busing. Like most people, I assumed that after 30 years of busing in Omaha, OPS, the founders of the Learning Community and other educators would have mounds of data supporting the educational benefits of busing in OPS. Sadly, I am still waiting to receive this information.
Proponents of busing will often quote national studies which conclude that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds perform better in low-poverty schools than they do in high-poverty schools. Yet, critics of these studies point out that the only thing they conclude is that low-poverty schools have a stronger culture for success, more active and influential parents and more qualified teachers than high-poverty schools.
For example, parents taking time to enroll their children into a magnet program or focus school are more likely to be active parents than parents who do not take that time to complete the paperwork. This is an important fact in achievement because children whose parents are highly involved in their education will outperform other low-income students whose parents are not highly involved, regardless of the type of school they attend.
Parental involvement not only increases educational outcomes for the active parents’ own children, it increases educational outcomes for the entire school. A 1996 study by Esther Ho Sui-chu and Douglas Willms found that “a child’s academic achievement did not depend so much on whether his or her own parents participated but on the average level of participation of all parents at the school.”
We must build a culture of success at every school, and one important factor is the level of parental involvement in the schools. However, when we bus a student across Omaha, we also remove that active parent from the neighborhood school and send the message to students that they have to go outside their neighborhood to be successful. Furthermore, those motivated students are also moved from the neighborhood school to the “magnet” school. By transporting students away from their neighborhood schools, we are leaving neighborhood schools with less parental involvement and fewer motivated students. Therefore, we are hindering the ability for these schools to build a culture of success from within.
Proponents of busing will point to the Montgomery County school system in Maryland. Yet, these proponents forget to mention that the Montgomery schools have a budget of $2.2 billion and a phalanx of public policies that promote integration in neighborhoods.
For example, for five decades now Montgomery County has had an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires that any new development above a certain size have a certain percentage of low-income housing. So while Montgomery is an extraordinarily diverse county like Omaha’s Douglas, it does not have any pockets of intense poverty and has no ghetto census tracks (high poverty).
It also should be noted that Montgomery County Public Schools spends only 1.68 percent of its budget on transportation. In contrast, OPS spends more than 7.5 percent of its budget on transportation.
Lastly, studies have confirmed that years after Kansas City and San Francisco implemented magnet and busing programs, black and Hispanic students lacked even modest overall improvement.
Study after study has confirmed that the most precious resource a teacher has when working with struggling students is not money or diversity but time on task. If giving students more time on task is the most effective way of closing the achievement gap, then I would rather see a struggling elementary student be at school longer than riding on a bus.
Omaha Public Schools has been busing students for as long as I have been alive, yet no significant gains have been made in the achievement gap according to national studies. The general public is already fed up with high property taxes and was extremely generous with OPS in granting bond issues in 1999 with the sole purpose of improving our neighborhood schools. As transportation costs increase, the community will demand better results.
No matter where you live, there should be a school in your community that you can be proud of and to which any parent would be happy to send his kids. Accordingly, improving academics should be the focus of any changes made in our public school systems, with diversity an important but secondary concern.
But let me be clear, diversity is very important. I also believe in informed evidence-based decisions. Thus, until I see the data proving it works, it is crucial that we get students, especially elementary students, off the bus and back into the classroom.