A review of the Omaha Public Schools' position on this year's crop of education bills in the Legislature sparked a spirited debate on charter schools at Monday's school board meeting.
Board members went back and forth on staking a position on State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh's latest charter-friendly bill, the Independent Public Schools Act.
After a bill authorizing charter schools gained little traction last year, the Omaha lawmaker introduced a bill this year that would allow for independent public schools only in Omaha.
Under Legislative Bill 972, the schools would essentially operate as charters in all but name. They would be managed by a board of trustees, be independent of a local school board and funded by a student's home school district.
The school board's legislative committee recommended taking the position that if charter schools were permitted in Nebraska, they should fall under the operation and oversight of local school districts and school boards. The recommendation was couched in terms that the bill apply to all school districts in the Omaha metro area and not just OPS.
School board member Anthony Vargas pushed the board to add language affirming support for school choice concepts “as embodied in this bill.”
Vargas argued that charter schools or greater school choice would foster creativity in education and give parents more public school options.
“Looking at my district in South Omaha, there are areas that are particularly low-performing, especially along lines of race, especially along lines of socioeconomic need, that would benefit from school options,” Vargas said.
Vargas recently joined the board of the Nebraska Alliance for Quality Education, an education group that supports school choice and charter schools, among other issues.
But board members — except for board President Justin Wayne — were largely unswayed by his arguments. They maintained that OPS needs to continue its focus on rebuilding the district before ceding any ground — or tax dollars — to independent schools.
“The district has a lot of support right now; the board has a lot of community support right now,” board member Katie Underwood said. “If we were to support this bill as it is written, it would take some focus away from that.”
Board member Yolanda Williams was more blunt.
“We need to give our system a chance, we don't need to be singled out in the state,” she said. “It's almost disheartening to hear this conversation. Charter schools aren't something I personally support at all.”
Vargas said research counters some concerns, including a fear that charter schools would skim from the top and leave public schools to educate special-education or high-need students.
Reading from a prepared statement, Wayne said OPS does allow for school choice in the form of open enrollment among Learning Community schools, but that choice is limited to more affluent parents who can afford to move into school districts perceived as better than OPS to get around outside enrollment caps.
“Let’s open up choice and at the same time show everyone Omaha Public Schools is the best district and you should attend our schools,” he said.
Board members voted to send the discussion back to the legislative committee. They postponed a motion by Vargas, seconded by Wayne, to add the school choice language to the board’s official legislative opinion.