LINCOLN — Passions ran high Tuesday at a legislative hearing about whether Nebraska should start allowing publicly funded charter schools in the state.
On one hand, Omaha charter school advocate Clarice Jackson told lawmakers about battling to find someone who could teach her daughter to read as a young child.
She succeeded only by taking her daughter out of the public schools, she said. Her daughter grew up to work at a group home for people with developmental disabilities.
On Tuesday she argued that other north Omaha parents need the choices that charter schools could provide.
“What do you say to a parent whose child is in a failing school?” Jackson asked. “How long do we wait for you all to figure it out and get it together?”
On the other hand was Lauren Osborne, a student at O’Neill High School who credited staff at her public school with saving her life.
Although she is very active in her school, Osborne said she suffers from mental illness. She said she got help after confiding in a teacher.
She urged the Education Committee not to divert resources from traditional public schools into charter schools.
“What about students that are left in public schools?” Osborne asked. “I believe we need to support students, but I don’t believe taking money out of public schools is the way to do that.”
The two were among more than 25 people who testified about Legislative Bill 630. Most spoke against the bill, which drew an overflow crowd.
The measure was introduced by State Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, who said it was needed to give hope to students in failing schools.
He pointed particularly to the academic achievement gaps between minority students and white students in the Omaha Public Schools.
“It is time to stop putting kids in Nebraska last when it comes to this issue,” he said.
LB 630 would allow the creation of charter schools in school districts with low-performing schools.
Termed independent public schools, the new charters would operate under separate boards from public school districts and would be exempt from most state education rules and regulations.
The state would provide funding for the schools, using money from the existing school aid pool.
During the hearing, Larson expressed frustration with opponents of charter schools, especially the Nebraska State Education Association, for keeping previous proposals bottled up in committee.
A similar fate appears probable for LB 630.
Three of the eight committee members spoke at a noon rally outside the Capitol opposing charter schools, and a fourth raised skeptical questions of the bill’s proponents.
Even if the measure advanced from committee, it would be unlikely to be debated by the Legislature this year.
No one has named it a priority, and it is estimated to cost $500,000 in a year when lawmakers are facing a sizable budget shortfall.
However, Larson said he plans to raise the issue as much as possible during other legislative debate.
Supporters of the bill included Jason Epting, a Nebraska high school graduate who is now principal of a charter school in New York City, and Kevin Chavous, a former District of Columbia City Council member and charter school advocate.
Chavous said charters are a tool that can help students in poverty who are trapped in low-performing schools. In D.C., he said charters have spurred a new openness to innovation in the public schools.
“We all need to have a sense of urgency,” he said. “We can’t wait for the next five-year plan.”
Among the opponents was Jeannette Eileen Jones-Vazansky, president of the NAACP of Lincoln. She said the NAACP nationally has called for a moratorium on new charters.
She said the policy was adopted after lengthy debate about whether to support more charters or to work on improving public schools.
Jones-Vazansky noted that most “black and brown” students remain in public schools, even where charters are allowed.
OPS board member Yolanda Williams also spoke against the proposal, which she said would mean less money for public schools.
She said OPS has been focused on improving academic achievement and offering more options for students. She said rising test scores show that the effort is paying off.
“We have come extremely far in that last decade,” Williams said. “We are on the move.”
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the public school system.
Nebraska is one of seven states without a charter schools law and one of 10 without such schools. Iowa, which allows charter schools, has three.