LINCOLN — Change appears to be on its way to the Omaha Public Schools, with a new superintendent selected and new people elected to one-third of the school board spots.
But an Omaha state senator still intends to pursue legislation aimed at shaking up the district.
Other Nebraska lawmakers are looking at less dramatic measures to address concerns about student achievement and leadership in OPS and beyond.
State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh said he wants to shrink the OPS board from its current 12 members, authorize charter schools to provide choices for all students and create a mechanism for the state to intervene with failing schools.
The proposals are his answers to chronically low test scores within the state’s largest school district and to recent board controversies, which he believes reflect an inability to address the achievement problems.
“I don’t know how long we can continue to tolerate failure in certain parts of the city and hope OPS is going to address it,” Lautenbaugh said.
Whether the Legislature will endorse his proposals is unclear.
All three ideas have been offered before in the Nebraska Legislature, without success.
OPS spokesman David Patton said district officials will wait to evaluate his proposals after they have been introduced.
Some key lawmakers predict the first two ideas — a smaller board and charter schools — will again have difficulty gaining enough support to pass this year.
But several share Lautenbaugh’s interest in setting up a way to step in and help schools that struggle academically.
“The real issue is what is a failing school and what is the state’s responsibility,” said Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who said he doesn’t know if any Nebraska schools qualify as failing.
Sen. Greg Adams of York, who has led the Education Committee, is convinced there are schools in the state that need outside help.
He said he plans to offer an intervention bill building on the new statewide school accountability system.
In broad outline, it would direct the State Board of Education to send in an intervention team when testing and other data show a school or district is in trouble.
The team would analyze the problems and develop solutions.
Adams said he has yet to work out whether those solutions should be merely recommendations or should be requirements for the school.
Nor has he settled on precisely what should trigger state action.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who is seeking the Education Committee chairmanship, said she is open to discussing state intervention but noted that such a response would require some funding.
Student achievement gaps are not just a concern for OPS, she said. Schools across the state face difficulties educating students from low-income families, who tend not to have as many opportunities to learn skills before starting school.
“The kids that are struggling, we need to try to figure out a way to help them as best we can,” Sullivan said.
Ways to address achievement gaps include expanding early childhood programs, which can help students start school on a more even footing, she said.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said he expects that a package of bills will be introduced to beef up early childhood programs. He said the effort should include preschools and day care.
He hopes the package will include at least a pilot program for testing the educational readiness of kindergartners. Such assessments would show how much difference schools make for students in later years.
“We’re blaming school districts, but we don’t know how far they’ve moved the needle,” Nordquist said.
Meanwhile, there may be an effort to dismantle one structure created, in part, to attack achievement gaps.
Lautenbaugh said he anticipates a bill to abolish the Douglas and Sarpy County Learning Community and he expects it would do “fairly well.”
He said he would vote to end the Learning Community because he doesn’t believe it has produced the results intended.
Sen.-elect Rick Kolowski of Omaha, who has been on the Learning Community board, disputed the idea that the four-year-old effort has not yielded results.
“We’re proud of the gains we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve got some good stories to tell about what’s been happening, especially in OPS.”
Proposals to change or eliminate the Learning Community have been offered in each year of its existence.
Adams said it’s appropriate to evaluate the Learning Community regularly.
However, he said, senators need to remember that it has been successful in quelling the metro-wide disputes about school boundaries and funding that prompted its creation.
Adams also urged lawmakers to move cautiously on Lautenbaugh’s proposal for charter schools. Such schools get public funding but have more freedom to operate outside the usual rules and regulations.
Lautenbaugh said parents need alternatives to OPS schools that are within their neighborhoods.
Opponents say charter schools siphon off funding and some of the most motivated students, making it more difficult to help the students left behind. The schools have shown mixed results in other states.
Fresh faces on the OPS board and the hiring of a new superintendent could dampen support for Lautenbaugh’s proposal to change the size of the board.
He argues that the board structure needs to change to make it more effective.
He said he is open to a variety of ideas, including paying board members, imposing term limits, electing members at large, instead of by district, and having appointed board members.
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