Tyliesha Tucker attends a well-regarded high school in Nebraska's Bellevue school district. Last year, Tyliesha, who is 15 and "pretty hilarious" by her own description, went to her local school in the Omaha Public School District. So did her 13-year-old brother, Kevin. But then there was the incident in the bathroom with a group of girls who had been tormenting her.
Tyliesha won't tell me exactly what happened. But her mother, Mildred, knows and remembers well the day it happened: "Tyliesha kept calling me, crying, saying, 'Take me out of here!'" Mildred had been worried about her kids well before that. Kevin, who was in eighth grade at the time, kept getting into fights on the school bus. And Tyliesha had been complaining to her mom about bullying and gang violence for a while. The previous year, her friend had been shot right near the school. So the bathroom incident was really just the last straw.
"That was the day I decided to opt her out of that school," says Mildred, an African American single mother who maintains the family on a small income of Social Security and state assistance. "That afternoon, I went to the Bellevue administrative building and signed them both up. I just knew I had to get them out of there."
Against all evidence, many believe the nation has already addressed the problem of school segregation. Court-ordered busing, the best known remedy, began in the 1970s and helped ease racial segregation and raise African American academic achievement. However, because it didn't give parents choice, busing was a political disaster, and a short-lived one. Most cities, including Omaha, abandoned or at least reduced busing after 1980, a year that marked the peak of school integration. As a result, today African American and Latino students across the country attend more-segregated schools than at any point in the past 20 years. At the same time, poverty in those schools has become more concentrated: Increasing numbers of students of color now go to schools that have a majority of low-income attendees. Children at these schools, research shows, tend to fare worse academically.
In some recent, high-profile cases, poor women have been charged with felonies for lying about their address to get their children into better, out-of-district schools. Not in Omaha. Mildred easily opted out of her local school thanks to an experiment in educational reform more far-reaching than any other in the country. Omaha and 10 nearby school districts have formed what's called the Learning Community, a groundbreaking arrangement that links the districts financially and encourages students to enroll in a school in another district within the community if their presence helps make the school more economically diverse.
Omaha's project is our country's most radical experiment in socioeconomic integration. (Since a 2007 Supreme Court decision, Seattle v. the People United, limited race-based approaches to school integration, virtually all efforts have been based on income.) To be sure, as a model it is not without its problems: Bitter conflict plagued the process of creating the Learning Community, and it is also unclear how other cities might follow Omaha's lead, since the city's approach to school reform grew out of unusual local law. Still, because Omaha's socioeconomic mix matches that of the country overall, because the area is small enough to make interdistrict transportation possible, and because of its sheer ambition, this Central Plains city is a perfect place to show the rest of the nation how school integration could work.
"No one has ever done what they're doing," says Jennifer Jellison Holme, an assistant professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, who studies regional efforts to create diversity in schools. Holme thinks many leaders of the Learning Community don't realize how pioneering they are. "They get elected and say, 'Let's look to other cities' models.' But there are no models. They're literally doing it all for the first time in this country."
Until five years ago, the story of the Omaha-area schools had been fairly typical of those in the rest of the country, with real-estate values largely determining the quality of public education. Omaha may be best known for Mutual of Omaha, one of five Fortune 500 companies located here; another is Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Yet while Nebraska is a mostly white and, in spots, very wealthy state, its largest city is not. African Americans, who account for only 4.5 percent of state residents, make up almost half of Omaha Public School students. Swahili is one of the most common second languages spoken by students. The city is also home to the fifth poorest African American community in the country, and the inner core of Omaha is as violent and troubled as any urban center you might find in bigger American metropolises. During the four days I was there this spring, 12 people were shot.
The city's residential divisions are readily discernable, with Hispanics concentrated in the south and most African Americans in the north part of the city. Bounded on the east by the Missouri River, which is also the state line between Nebraska and Iowa, Omaha has spread out over time toward the openness to its west. And some of the newer, less densely populated areas created their own school districts. As these mostly white, middle-class communities blossomed outside the city's center after World War II, the tax base of Omaha Public Schools shrank. When court-ordered busing began in 1976, "white flight" began in earnest. Over the next four years, the number of students in OPS plummeted from 53,825 to 38,000.
While many Omaha residents headed westward from the inner city, others dodged integration without moving. Five separate school districts lie at least partially within the city lines. One of those, known as Westside, sits, like Vatican City inside Rome, entirely within the bounds of Omaha and OPS. Westside, which has some of the city's most expensive homes, became a distinct district just before Brown v. Board of Education (1954). As in many other high-income communities, Westside's schools are a selling point. According to Prudential Real Estate's Web page on houses in the district, "Westside's class of 2009 has set a new school record on both the reading and math portions of the SAT -- furthering Westside's reputation as one of the best school districts in the United States." The area's healthy home prices allow for the taxes that keep its schools well funded.
Unfortunately, the self-perpetuating real-estate value/school-quality feedback loop works in the other direction as well: Poor schools lower real-estate value and diminish the taxes available to improve or just operate them, in turn depressing home prices. The property value per student in OPS is nearly a third of that in some of the wealthier districts within the Learning Community. As a result, OPS is left with both more impoverished children, who are more expensive to educate, and far less money with which to do it. Of the 11 districts within the Learning Community, OPS has by far the most poor kids, with 67 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. (The actual number of poor children is probably higher since, in Omaha and elsewhere, some would rather go hungry than get in a lunch line that makes their financial predicament plain.)
The academic gulf between these poorer students and their peers a few miles west is apparent at an early age. By third grade, only 54 percent of students in OPS meet or exceed state reading standards. In Elkhorn Public Schools, by contrast, where just 9 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 83 percent of third-graders meet or exceed those standards. By 11th grade, that vast chasm has broadened even further, with 84 percent of Elkhorn kids meeting or exceeding reading standards, as opposed to 48 percent in Omaha schools.
Similar patterns are visible throughout the country. Though individual teachers, parents, and students can help chart a student's academic course, high-poverty schools are particularly toxic for the children trying to learn in them. The corollary is also true: While income is clearly linked to academic performance, a poor child is likely to fare better just by virtue of being in a more economically diverse environment. In one recent study, low-income students in heavily middle-class schools did better academically than middle-class students in high-poverty schools. In another study, low-income fourth-grade students who attended more affluent schools had math-test scores almost two years ahead of their low-income peers stuck in high-poverty schools.
A provision of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law attempted to address the problem, mandating that students in failing schools be allowed to transfer to better-performing schools within their district. But, in part because many of the poorest districts have no better school options within them, only about 1 percent of eligible students take advantage of that provision. The federal law does give a slight nod to the growing problem of segregation between, rather than within, districts by encouraging suburban districts to set up cooperative agreements with urban ones, so urban students might attend the suburban schools and vice versa. Thus far, none has voluntarily done so.
Omaha might seem an unlikely place to tackle the achievement gap. In fact, the city's effort to establish the Learning Community in 2007 had less to do with widespread local support for the idea of pooling educational resources than with an old and, until recently, little-noticed state law that allowed the district to annex other districts within the city. Lawyers for OPS first became aware of the statute, which dates from 1891, in 2004, buried in a "cleanup" bill that would have stricken it from the books. Instead, the district used it to launch a "One City, One School District" campaign, aimed at incorporating 21 schools that were part of suburban districts into OPS.
Suburban districts were outraged by the plan. Some of its supporters put "One City, One School District" bumper stickers on their cars, only to find them keyed. But the campaign was both legal threat and conversation starter. The effort showed neighboring districts that OPS was serious about addressing inequality, and it gave advocates of the city's poor students -- which included the local chapter of the NAACP, the Chicano Awareness Center, the publisher of the Omaha World Herald, investment guru Warren Buffett, and the outspoken Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel -- a crucial negotiating tool. The prospect of a total loss of their independence was clearly instrumental in convincing the relatively wealthy districts to come to the table.
Talks about alternative solutions began. The negotiations that led up to the creation of the Learning Community were slow -- and unpleasant. Opponents of integration efforts deployed children to hold signs with little handprints and the words "Keep your hands off my schools." Mackiel received death threats. And the issue of how to address the inequity of Omaha's schools played into the 2006 election of Nebraska's governor. The Democratic candidate, a popular former football star, remained neutral on the schools issue and lost, while Dave Heineman, the Republican who is still in office, was elected after taking the position that suburban schools shouldn't be responsible for the inner city's educational problems.
Yet it was a coalition of superintendents -- from four suburban districts that had joined in opposition to the "One City, One School District" effort -- that ultimately came up with the seeds of the desegregation plan now in place. The new solution pools some tax money and allows movement between districts while leaving district boundaries untouched. By 2007, the combination of advocacy, impassioned moral argument, and legal threat won the day, and the Nebraska Legislature created the Learning Community. Ultimately, the proposal found several strong advocates among state legislators, and buses of parents representing the majority of districts involved went to the capital to show their support. The final legislation gave the 11 participating districts in two counties in and around Omaha an elected body with the mission to create equity in schools and, perhaps most important, the authority to levy taxes.
In the first year alone, the board collected some $442 million in tax levy money. While the overall amount of real-estate taxes is exactly what was collected before the Learning Community, that money is now doled out to the individual districts according to a need-based formula devised by the Legislature. Through the Learning Community's common general fund levy, OPS got $32 million more for the 2010-2011 school year than it would have had it directly collected its own property taxes. Meanwhile, eight districts received less money than they would have had the needs-based formula not been in place. The Learning Community collects additional money for programs that can close the gap among elementary school students -- things such as summer reading sessions with teachers; enrichment programs that offer swimming and music lessons; and mentoring for recent Karen refugees from the violence in Myanmar.
The Learning Community has also begun to open inter-district doors for its 110,000 or so students. Those who earn little enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch (a family of four has to earn less than $41,000 a year to qualify for reduced lunch, according to the latest federal guidelines), are given entree -- and free transportation -- to schools where such low-income students make up less than 40 percent of the school population, the Learning Community average rate. Those who don't qualify for free and reduced lunch are given preference to get into schools where more than 40 percent of students do qualify.
The number of students who have moved to new schools within the Learning Community is still relatively small. Only 1,560 students attended out-of-district schools to which they brought socioeconomic balance this past year. That number includes students going from poorer to richer districts -- and vice versa. So while Tyliesha and Kevin Tucker ride the bus a half-mile to the Bellevue school district, where only 27 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch, on the other side of town, Ariana Koch and her brother, Ethan, are crossing from their affluent community into the Omaha Public School district to go to high school.
Last year, Omaha Public Schools got $32 million more through the common fund levy than it would have from its own property taxes.
Why would a student from a suburban district like Elkhorn want to attend public school in Omaha? It's a question 17-year-old Ariana gets asked all the time. Ariana is a cheery, competent girl, the kind of kid you'd probably be pleased to be teamed with on a group project. The kind of kid who might fit right in at Elkhorn High, the school near her house, known for its high test scores.
"My friends in Elkhorn think I'm crazy," she told me recently as we chatted in the airy courtyard that serves as Central High's cafeteria. Ultimately, Ariana says, her decision between Elkhorn, Millard, and Central high schools came down to diversity. "When I visited Millard, most everybody was Caucasian. Here," she says, gesturing to the multicolored student body milling around with lunch trays, "there are students from over 40 different countries. And it's not segmented. The Caucasians don't just stay with the Caucasians."
The Learning Community provides another way to bring white, suburban kids into more diverse classrooms: magnet schools. Because few parents in relatively wealthy areas are likely to send their children to schools that have higher concentrations of poverty than their own neighborhood schools, magnets have special features designed to make them attractive to families up and down the economic ladder. There is perhaps no better illustration of this approach than the Underwood Hills Focus School, the Learning Community's first and only magnet. Indeed, in some ways, the school's experience seems to sum up both the promise and fragility of Omaha's entire effort.
The magnet elementary school was set up two months before the law establishing the Learning Community passed, in an attempt to demonstrate what true interdistrict cooperation might achieve. A joint effort between OPS, Westside, and Elkhorn, the school has teachers and students from each of those districts. With 41 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, Underwood Hills has almost exactly the socioeconomic breakdown of the larger Learning Community. Racially and ethnically, the student population also looks like the demographics of the entire area. Underwood Hills also has enhanced programs meant to bolster academic achievement for all, including an extended school day and year; one-on-one tutoring; and enrichment programs in everything from Scrabble to Mandarin Chinese, TV news production, reptile care, power yoga, cooking, and the Iditarod. There is also a strong commitment to technological literacy, and every Underwood Hills student has his or her own dedicated laptop computer.
The idea behind Underwood Hills was to show how well all students could do in the right environment. And, in the three years the school has been open, it has amassed the evidence integration advocates need: While just slightly more than half of the kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch in Nebraska and just 48 percent of kids in OPS schools meet or exceed the state's reading standards, 75 percent of Underwood students in the same economic boat scored that well on reading tests. Even without taking income into consideration, the magnet school's children test better, with 73 percent meeting or exceeding the reading standard, as opposed to 68 percent statewide. Not surprisingly, the demand for spots in this friendly, attentive school has outstripped availability.
Yet, despite its success, Underwood Hills is struggling. The school was originally set up by three superintendents who shared a commitment to equalizing school resources. But two of those leaders, the superintendents of Elkhorn and Westside, recently moved on to other jobs. Because their replacements didn't share their predecessors' enthusiasm for the project, the change in personnel almost put the school out of existence. In the early spring of this year, both districts, represented by their new superintendents and citing the financial cost of participating, decided to pull out. (Educating a child at Underwood Hills costs $13,800 a year, compared to a state average of $13,500.)
Parents mounted a "Keep the Focus" campaign and made a presentation to the state Legislature. But it was Susie Buffett, daughter of Warren and herself a graduate of OPS' Central High, who ultimately saved the school by offering to cover all of its costs through her foundation. With the infusion of funds, Underwood Hills will remain open for at least the coming school year. Yet, to OPS Superintendent John Mackiel, Westside's and Elkhorn's decision to back out of the joint effort, even after Buffett's offer would have allowed them to participate at no cost, points to the disingenuousness of the financial arguments for doing so. Mackiel clearly sees racism fueling resistance to the Learning Community, along with greed and indifference. "I have heard every race-neutral excuse to return to the status quo," Mackiel says. "Money was just another in a long line."
Mackiel characterizes much of the opposition to integration since the Learning Community has been in place as "stealth." A few of the community's 21 elected leaders complained that some districts have either dragged their heels or simply refused when it came to providing data and finding room for out-of-district students in their schools. No districts have coordinated their school schedules or calendars with those of other districts, which would facilitate transportation.
Steven Baker, Elkhorn's superintendent of schools, told me he wasn't against the Learning Community. Minutes from a recent meeting, however, show him saying that he wishes the tax levy -- the heart of the policy innovation -- "would go away." Baker insists he is sympathetic to the plight of the poorer children in OPS. "It's not a matter of not caring about them," he explains. "The heart wants all those kids to succeed." But, he says, he is the superintendent of a large and growing district, and poor students from inner-city Omaha aren't his priority: "I've got my hands full."
Some opposition is more overt. A recent proposal in the state Legislature, driven by representatives of some of the richer districts in the Learning Community, would have changed the governance structure so that OPS had less representation and suburban schools more, giving them the opportunity to do away with the tax levy. The bill died in the Education Committee, but two lawsuits brought by residents of two of the 11 school districts aimed at dismantling the Learning Community are still pending. One, which will likely go to trial in the fall, asserts both that the tax levy is unconstitutional and that the formula laid out in the law was applied incorrectly, giving too much money to Omaha and too little to certain surrounding districts.
'I have heard every race-neutral excuse to return to the status quo,' Mackiel says. 'Money was just another in a long line.'
For many parents on both sides, the issue is emotionally charged. Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda, a lawyer who is representing OPS in its ongoing legal battles, told me about a blond, pony-tailed young mother who approached her after she spoke on a panel in support of the Learning Community a couple of years ago. "She said, 'If I understood correctly, you're telling me that my child has 10 crayons and these kids have no crayons. And you want us to give some of our crayons to those kids. Now that's probably fair. But as a parent, I'm never going to get behind anything that takes away my child's crayons.'"
How can the Learning Community achieve its goals in the face of such opposition? And, in the rest of the country, how might cities overcome such biases to create similar policy ventures? The challenge becomes even greater when you realize that most places can't count on having obscure laws serve as negotiating tools.
The key, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is financial incentives. Currently, federal law is structured in a way that discourages districts from accepting low-income students: No Child Left Behind rewards schools based on test scores, which tend to be higher for middle-class kids than for low-income ones. Kahlenberg helped the John Edwards presidential campaign come up with a plan that would have countered that, allotting $200 million for middle-class suburban schools that welcomed low-income children and for the creation of magnet schools that would bring middle-class students into urban schools. "With the right financial incentives, even Republicans will go along with this," Kahlenberg says.
Another part of the solution is convincing the public that school integration is worthwhile. And, for that, the best tool may be experience. That's certainly what worked for Ariana's father, a police officer who at first didn't want her to attend Central High. Knowing where the school was, he was particularly concerned about safety. As Ariana puts it, "My dad saw the worst in this area." Now, almost four years later, he's convinced she made the right choice.
Ariana has clearly thrived at Central, where she plays golf and tennis, and participates in the honors music society. She was accepted to every college to which she applied. With the exception of Spanish and aerobics, she takes all Advanced Placement courses. She even won a $10,000 college scholarship from Coca-Cola with an essay about tutoring her peers from Asia, Mexico, and the Sudan. "I have gained insurmountable respect for these students who fight through adversity," she wrote in the essay. "The privilege of working with students unlike myself has humbled me. Without venturing beyond my suburban community, I would have missed the valuable life lessons found here."
The experience of diversity isn't always quite so idyllic or easy. Back in Bellevue, Tyliesha says that some of her classmates are "snobby" and that a few have called her "nigger." On one of those occasions, Mildred reported the incident to the principal and the student was suspended. Though Tyliesha says it's happened other times, Mildred was pleased with the school's quick response and is encouraging her daughter to focus on her education rather than her small-minded peers.
"I told them, sometimes you got to have a numb ear to these things," Mildred explains. Having never graduated from middle or high school herself, Mildred is far more concerned that her children get a decent education. So when Tyliesha complains that the school is much harder than her old school and that teachers expect too much from her, Mildred just nods and says, "That's right."
Despite their complaints, Mildred's children are doing well. Kevin has joined ROTC and is hoping to enlist with the Navy. Meanwhile, Tyliesha has lots of friends and says she'd like to be a pediatrician, which also happens to be Ariana's professional goal. Mildred, who feels limited by her own lack of education, cares most about her children feeling this sense of possibility.
Standing outside their public-housing complex, Mildred recalls being bused to school in a richer, whiter part of Memphis when she was little. Though the busing only lasted a year, the memory is still clear. "We drove through neighborhoods I'd never been to, and I saw these beautiful houses for the first time. I thought to myself, someday I'm gonna get me one of those houses," she said, gazing at the next row of apartments. "I want my kids to see different houses and think that same thing."