Archive for Saturday, February 19, 2005

Nebraska confronts trend toward school segregation

State seeing whites flee mostly Hispanic urban areas

February 19, 2005

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— Dick Eisenhauer is tired of watching white families take their children out of the schools in his Nebraska district and enroll them in smaller, outlying ones where there are virtually no poor or Hispanic students.

Like many of Nebraska's school systems, the Lexington district where Eisenhauer is superintendent has seen an influx of Hispanics, largely because of jobs at the meatpacking plants, and an accompanying exodus of white students to public elementary schools just outside town.

And there is nothing Eisenhauer can do about it. Nebraska law allows students to switch schools without giving a reason.

"It bothers you when people come into your town and make comments like 'You've got lots of Mexican kids,"' Eisenhauer said. "I feel distressed if they would opt out for that reason."

The situation in Lexington and elsewhere in Nebraska has caught the attention of the state Legislature, which is considering a bill to thwart what some say amounts to legal segregation in the schools.

The proposal would force the outlying elementary-only schools to merge with larger kindergarten-through-12th-grade districts. That could mean the closing of the smaller schools.

Beginning in the 1960s, white flight to the suburbs left many big-city school systems across the country predominantly black. But what is happening in Nebraska is a different phenomenon: The white families are staying put; they are just sending their kids to school outside town.

This is possible because Nebraska, unlike many other states and communities, does not require students to attend the schools in the district in which they live.

As a result, in Lexington, the in-town schools, with an enrollment of 2,500, have 804 students learning English as a second language, and 1,172 who are getting a free or reduced-price lunch. The six outlying elementary schools have about 130 students -- none of them English learners, none of them living in poverty, according to the state Education Department.

Eli Linquist is dropped off at school by his mother, Ruth Chantry,
at the two-room, K-8 Oak Valley School north of Lincoln, Neb. A
proposal to force elementary-only districts to merge with larger
kindergarten-through-12th-grade systems, which is being debated in
the Legislature, would force the closure of Oak Valley School.

Eli Linquist is dropped off at school by his mother, Ruth Chantry, at the two-room, K-8 Oak Valley School north of Lincoln, Neb. A proposal to force elementary-only districts to merge with larger kindergarten-through-12th-grade systems, which is being debated in the Legislature, would force the closure of Oak Valley School.

The situation is similar in and around the small town of Schuyler, which also has seen an influx of Hispanics in recent years. There are 250 students there who are learning to speak English; none of them attend the outlying schools. Of 325 students living in poverty, all but 18 go to school in town.

At the same time, spending per student in the outlying schools is as much as twice as high as spending in the Schuyler grade schools. All public schools in Nebraska are primarily funded with local property taxes and state aid, which is based in part on enrollment.

Cecilia Huerta, director of the state's Mexican-American Commission, said other Nebraska communities with large numbers of Hispanics are likely to have the same situation.

"People in Lexington and Schuyler do not want their kids being polluted by Latin Americans and Hispanics," Huerta said. "They think they're not going to get the quality of education if they have a diverse classroom."

Many Hispanics are not aware of what is happening, but if they did "they would be up in arms," said state Sen. Ray Aguilar, the Legislature's only Hispanic.

Chris Dvorak, a white parent who has two children who attend a school outside Schuyler, said she sent her children there to avoid overcrowding in town, not to get away from Hispanics. "I would have done the same thing if they were all white kids," Dvorak said.

There are 45 students enrolled at Dvorak's children's school, compared with more than 850 at Schuyler Grade School.

State Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler pointed out that anyone can attend the outlying schools. "It's not an elite group that gets to option," he said.

But Aguilar said Hispanic students do not go to the schools outside of town because in many Hispanic households, both parents work and do not have cars to take their children to class.

Rosa Valerio, a Hispanic mother whose children both attend school in Schuyler, said she never considered sending them to schools outside town because they are too far away.

Some senators are afraid the state will face legal challenges if the Legislature does not stop the trend toward separate white and Hispanic schools.

"It is unconscionable," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ron Raikes.

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