America’s public schools reached a demographic milestone this year — one that Nebraska schools aren’t likely to hit for at least two decades, and Iowa’s later still.

The nation’s public schools enrolled more minority and mixed-race students than white students, according to projections from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Nebraska is riding the same demographic wave, but its schools will take 23 more years to reach the same point, if growth rates hold steady.

As racial minorities take up more seats in the classroom, schools will be challenged to meet the needs of this growing group. Schools are likely to come under increasing political pressure to erase stubborn achievement gaps, overcome language barriers and educate groups of students who are historically poorer than whites.

Last week the Southern Education Foundation reported that for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-
income families. The report, based on 2013 federal data, said that 51 percent of students in prekindergarten through 12th grade were eligible under the federal program for free or reduced-price lunches in the 2012-13 school year. Nebraska’s rate was 44 percent; Iowa’s was 40 percent.

Experts say that Nebraska has time to adjust to the coming change, adopting strategies that have worked elsewhere and avoiding mistakes.

In Nebraska, white students this school year make up 68.2 percent of public school enrollment — 212,964 of the state’s 312,281 public school students. Minorities as a whole are steadily gaining in the state, led by Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race students.

In Iowa schools last year, 79 percent of students were white. That was a slight decline over the previous year, while each minority group except Native American gained.

Improving achievement and providing opportunities for minorities will require extra resources, but the investment will pay dividends, said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

“This is one of those things, if we get it right, we win — big time,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.

Nebraskans should embrace the coming diversity, said Palma Strand, a law professor and director of Creighton University’s 2040 Initiative, which aims to foster a smooth transition to the coming racial shift.

“This is who we are becoming,” Strand said.

The 2040 Initiative is named to reflect the approximate year when the U.S. population is expected to become majority minority.

People should be asking how society will support minority students who will be working adults a generation from now, Strand said.

“Those are our kids now, because those are going to be the muscle of our society a generation from now,” Strand said.

National projections put white student enrollment in public schools at 49.7 percent this year. That’s down from a projected 50.3 percent in 2013. Actual national numbers take several years to compile.

In Nebraska schools, racial minority groups continue to grow at a faster pace than whites.

Thirteen of Nebraska’s 249 school districts are majority minority, meaning that minority students outnumber white students. The state’s largest district, Omaha Public Schools, is among them.

“We’ve been a majority white country, majority anglo, white country, and that’s changing,” Strand said.

That creates anxiety for some, she said. “I think rather than being anxious about it, we should say ‘It is.’ ”

Benjamin-Alvarado said the changes already seen in Omaha Public Schools will spread across the state.

In OPS, 90 languages are spoken, and the enrollment is 70 percent nonwhite.

Many of those students are stressed economically, he said.

Educators have to look at the economic reality of where those students are coming from and what kind of preparation they are going to get at home to be successful, he said. And policymakers should look at pockets of success in OPS, such as dual-
language programs or other best practices that could be replicated across the state, he said.

“If there are efforts that have been undertaken to put primary health care facilities in the schools to kind of serve as preventive care for kids, is that going to be something we’re going to want to do across the state?” Benjamin-Alvarado said.

“The question literally then becomes a political question. Do we have the political will to be able to step up and say ‘Yeah, this is something we want to do with our children’?”

There’s a need to inform politicians, policymakers and bureaucrats that “This is the reality now,” he said.

The demographic shift and the companion trend of rising poverty have been on the radar of Nebraska school officials for more than a decade.

In 1997 Nebraska lawmakers made sweeping changes to the state school system, introducing a weighting system that took into account three demographic factors when calculating aid: Indian-land, limited English proficiency and poverty.

In 2003 the Omaha, Grand Island and South Sioux City school districts sued the State of Nebraska, contending that the system still wasn’t enough to cover the costs of educating the rising number of poor and non-English-speaking students.

Lawmakers attempted to address Omaha-area concerns by creating the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

This year superintendents from the Omaha metro area are again appealing for increased aid for educating poor and immigrant students.

Their proposal would do away 
with the shared tax system the 
Legislature imposed through the Learning Community while boosting aid to districts with more poor and non-English-speaking students.

Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Riley said educators were the first to see these trends coming and to appeal to the Legislature for help.

“We’ve known this from the beginning. If you go back to our original plans that were written in November of 2006, a bill that Sen. (Gail) Kopplin carried for us, we were basically saying similar things.”

Contact the writer: 
402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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