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The writer, a student at Creighton University, works part-time as a community outreach associate for Invest in Kids Nebraska.

In reviewing the just-released ACT scores from Omaha-area high schools, a worthy question arises: Are we behind?

According to data from the Nebraska Department of Education, scores show a divide between high schools west of 72nd Street in Omaha and high schools east of 72nd Street. Between 70% and 80% of juniors attending schools in the Elkhorn, Millard and Gretna districts performed at grade level. The same can be said for less than 30% of juniors at the Omaha Public Schools. Less than 20% of students at Omaha Benson and Omaha Bryan, both east of 72nd Street, met state standards. At Elkhorn South High School, the average ACT score was 24.6. At Omaha Benson, the average score was 14.9.

Granted, students east of 72nd Street are more likely to face language barriers and struggle with poverty. But do we just leave those students behind?

It should alarm all members of the Omaha community to see students on one side of town, students who already struggle with so many barriers, have fewer high-quality educational options. Nebraskans must acknowledge that we have a problem. Now is the time to pursue the solutions, solutions we have ignored for the past several decades.

I was born in South Sudan and was raised in north Omaha. The message from my parents remained consistent: Succeed in your education, and you will gain an abundance of opportunities to help your people. Like many raised in impoverished areas who have seen the other side of town, that’s all we wanted to do.

Through organizations such as Children’s Scholarship Fund, which assisted my family, I was blessed with the opportunity to attend All Saints Catholic School, one of the most diverse private schools in the Omaha area. I went on to Mount Michael Benedictine High School, and now I attend Creighton University.

Unfortunately, Children’s Scholarship Fund must turn away hundreds of families each year due to a lack of funding. But if school choice legislation was enacted in our state, those families would have somewhere to turn.

Nebraska is one of only three states without a school choice program, meaning 47 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have policies that provide families with options other than district schools. In 2019, both Iowa and South Dakota expanded their successful tax credit scholarship programs that offer families assistance to attend private school. By giving families such freedom of choice in education, Nebraskans could have the opportunity to change the lives of our students and families.

Given the many blessings I’ve had, I feel obligated to help the students in my community as they struggle to overcome the barriers before them. Introducing school choice programs in Nebraska would provide the change many families seek and so many students need.

Research shows that school choice programs can reduce racial segregation, reduce instances of criminal behavior and teenage pregnancy, increase collegegoing and college completion rates and provide better academic outcomes for all students, in both public and private schools. The research is clear. The need is great. Now is time for action.

I urge Nebraska state senators to put the education of all students at the forefront and adopt school choice policy in our state. More importantly, I urge all Nebraskans to take action and reach out to lawmakers. It’s time to catch up with the rest of the country. It’s time for more opportunity. It’s time to put our kids first.

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