LINCOLN — A legislative hearing on a bill to create charter schools in Nebraska came down to time.
Anxious parents said Tuesday that they couldn’t wait any longer for Nebraska public schools — namely the Omaha Public Schools — to get their act together.
They said parents, primarily those of poor and minority students, should have more options than a struggling public school system, expensive private schools or the red tape that accompanies transfers into neighboring school districts.
“I don’t understand why we don’t have a larger sense of urgency,” said Kevin Lytle Jr., an OPS parent and vice president of programming at the Leadership Institute for Urban Education. “Omaha is progressing, but in north Omaha we’re not.”
Opponents, on the other hand, said OPS needs more time to improve lagging test scores and graduation rates without the distractions — and the drain of public dollars — that would ensue if charter schools were approved.
“They hired a talented superintendent and now they’re trying to ... improve OPS and deliver the services that their community needs and wants,” said lobbyist John Bonaiuto, testifying for the Nebraska Association of School Boards and the Nebraska Council of School Administrators. “And they just need some time.”
Members of the Education Committee listened intently throughout the five-hour hearing but did not vote on Legislative Bill 972.
Sponsored by State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, the bill calls for a pilot program to create five publicly funded “independent public schools” in Omaha — charter schools in all but name.
The schools would operate under a charter granted by the State Board of Education and be governed by a board of trustees, independent of any local school board or district.
Nebraska is one of eight states that don’t allow charter schools.
Charter schools have struggled to find a place in Nebraska — a similar bill sponsored by Lautenbaugh last year never made it out of committee.
This year, Lautenbaugh and charter school advocates have been pressing the need for school choice, holding film screenings and trying to drum up support in north Omaha.
Committee members had questions on everything from funding charters to requirements for teacher certification to perceptions that charters “cream” the best and brightest students from traditional public schools.
Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha, who opposed last year’s bill, repeatedly questioned charter school proponents about allowing public school dollars to shift to charter schools, which would not answer to a publicly elected board.
Omaha school board member Tony Vargas, a charter school advocate, said charter schools and public schools do not need to be an either-or proposition.
“There is no silver bullet, but there is a cadre of solutions that can help solve the inequities in public education ... and one of the things on the list is charter schools,” Vargas said.
Vargas, who was not speaking for the school board, said charter schools, freed from some public school requirements, have more flexibility on curriculum and a track record of serving minority students well.
Other lawmakers said they were moved by the passion of parents who testified that public schools failed to challenge their children, including one father who said a teacher told him his son — who had a “C” average — was a good student.
“When I see normal people coming up and begging for some type of choice, some type of alternative to what they have had over the last five, 10, 15 years ... if I were them I’d say, ‘How much longer do we have to wait?’ Can we afford another generation that’s going to be lost because of the achievement gap that exists now?” said Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk.
Lautenbaugh’s bill is aimed squarely at Omaha, but the Omaha school board took a neutral stance on the bill — saying if charter schools were authorized they should fall under the oversight of the local school district. Some states, Kansas among them, require charter schools to be run by public school districts.
Chris Proulx, Omaha Education Association president, said tensions between charter schools and teachers unions have been exaggerated. But he opposed the bill, saying Nebraska needs more time to hammer out charter school guidelines.
Public schools and students suffer when unprepared charter schools are rushed through, he said, pointing to the closing last year of 17 charter schools in Columbus, Ohio, a move that left local schools scrambling to absorb hundreds of displaced students.
“It’s not that charter schools are good or bad,” he said. “It’s a false choice. They can work, but they can also have huge detriments.”