LINCOLN — Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed came out swinging Monday against a bill that would allow limited charter schools to be created in Omaha.
The state's top education official called the proposal a step backward for education in the state and argued that it is unneeded.
“This is a flawed bill seeking to implement a flawed solution,” Breed told members of the Legislature's Education Committee.
But State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, who introduced Legislative Bill 593, said he is offering it to give Omaha Public Schools students a path out of failing schools.
He cast the proposal as a way to provide options for students who cannot afford private or parochial school tuition.
“This is a modest attempt to see what would work,” Lautenbaugh said.
LB 593 would allow up to five charter schools within the City of Omaha. The schools would be allowed to serve up to 1,000 students total.
The schools would be chartered by the State Board of Education and operate outside local school board control. They would receive public funds from the students' home districts.
Lautenbaugh said he intends for the schools to be set up east of 72nd Street and to serve only OPS students, although the bill does not specify that.
“I would hope they are in areas with demonstrable need,” he said.
LB 593 does not provide for charter schools outside Omaha.
It is one of two bills Lautenbaugh introduced this year to address concerns about lagging student achievement and leadership problems in OPS.
The other bill, which became law earlier this month, shrank the school board and forced new board elections this spring for all board positions.
Gillian Quinn-Pinera, an Omaha native who works for the KIPP, or Knowledge is Power Program, charter schools in Houston, said charter schools could raise test scores for students in Omaha's poorest neighborhoods.
KIPP schools target students with the greatest needs, she said. More than 87 percent of students are low-income and 95 percent are African-American or Latino.
Quinn-Pinera said charter schools can benefit all students in an area by working with traditional public schools to share innovative practices.
But Breed cited a 2009 Stanford University study that found charter schools generally do no better at raising student achievement than other schools.
He also challenged the idea that charter schools stimulate innovation.
“There is nothing charter schools can do that a public school cannot do,” he said.
In response to questions, Breed acknowledged that OPS has had a student achievement gap. But he expressed confidence that district officials have taken the problem to heart and are working on changes.
He also noted that Omaha parents have several alternatives to their neighborhood schools, including magnet schools, new focus schools, open enrollment within the learning community, private and parochial schools and home schooling.
Liz Standish, an OPS administrator, cited data showing recent improvement in reading and mathematics test scores and in graduation rates.
Committee members raised a number of questions about how the proposal would work, including how the funding would mesh with the state school aid formula and whether charter schools could set aside state academic standards.
Also Monday, Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York outlined a different proposal for addressing schools with achievement problems.
LB 438 would require the State Board of Education to designate five priority schools, based on their low performance on the new statewide school accountability system. The board would appoint intervention teams to analyze the priority schools' problems and develop plans for addressing them.
The bill also provides for the creation of local operating councils to advise school officials. The councils would be required for priority schools and optional for other schools.
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