Nebraska leaders continue to debate the future direction of the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, and the outcome of that debate remains in flux. Still, there is an important guidepost that needs to be kept in mind.
Controversial since its beginnings in the wake of ugly boundary and school funding disputes, the Learning Community has left many confused about its mission, befuddled by the need for another education bureaucracy, resentful over its common tax levy and dubious of its accomplishments.
Its backers say the 11-district Learning Community is showing success and that more time will bring greater success. But there may not be that much more time.
Some lawmakers have wanted to kill it. Gov. Pete Ricketts, who initially wanted to do away with the Learning Community, subsequently suggested a modified plan to eliminate its structure (including governing council, staff and common levy) but allow metro-area districts to levy an extra penny of property tax for early childhood education programs. Metro area school superintendents proposed, among other things, ending the common tax levy along with boosting state aid for districts with high numbers of students in poverty.
The Legislature’s Education Committee stalled last week over another idea, one that would have left the Learning Community structure intact, along with the 1.5-cent levy authority to support early childhood education, elementary learning centers and other innovative programs. The proposal also would have suspended the common levy for the 2016-17 school year.
State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the committee’s chairwoman, said the intent was to eliminate the common levy entirely if metro-area districts developed a workable plan to guarantee continued educational cooperation.
There is a constant in this discussion that is bigger than the Learning Community’s structure: the need to address the problems that helped bring it into being.
That includes high concentrations of poverty, large numbers of English language learners, and a stark achievement gap between white and minority children in the Omaha Public Schools.
State leaders cannot turn their backs now. The importance of educating all our kids spans the metropolitan area. The ramifications of failure — lack of a trained workforce, unemployment, crime — don’t stop at one school district’s boundary line.
The Learning Community, including what led to it and what has transpired since its formation, has helped focus wider attention on these issues.
However, the common property tax levy aimed at sharing resources equitably across the 11 districts has been a source of confusion and resentment, with some districts losing money.
As state senators consider its future direction, they should recognize that some Learning Community programs have shown potential: the north and south elementary learning centers; programs that aim to increase family involvement in education; early childhood education.
Within OPS, the new school board and superintendent have demonstrated leadership and progress in addressing the achievement gap. But any alternative to the Learning Community shouldn’t simply dump all the problems back on OPS.
Look around the nation at what happens when large urban school districts with high concentrations of poverty are left to erode. It’s never good for a city or its surrounding metro area. It would be a huge mistake to let that happen here. Our city and state have a common, long-term interest to make sure it doesn’t.
If state leaders think it’s time for the Learning Community to go, they cannot ignore the difficult issues that helped bring about its creation.
They will need to look at the state aid formula and take into account the additional costs of educating impoverished students. This involves not just Omaha or the metro area, it impacts other parts of the state, as well.
That calls for a statewide strategy and consensus to address the needs of students in poverty and forge a sensible compromise among Nebraska schools’ legitimate, sometimes competing interests.
In the end, the structure, even the existence, of the Learning Community seems less important than making certain that every Nebraska child has every chance to obtain a quality education.