Bill would authorize independent public schools

Members of the Education Committee heard testimony on a bill Feb. 25 that would allow for independent public schools.

Under LB972, introduced by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, an independent public school would be classified as a political subdivision, operating under a compact granted by the state Board of Education. Lautenbaugh said his support of these schools — commonly referred to as charter schools — is not something he entered into lightly.

“We do have, as a nation, experience with charter schools,” he said. “We’ve seen what’s worked and what has failed. In underserved communities, particularly where poverty is present, that is where we’re seeing charter schools get the most bang for the buck.”

Those eligible to establish an independent public school would include teachers, parents, school administrators, community residents, public organizations and nonprofit organizations. The school district of residence would be required to pay the district’s actual per pupil cost for each student attending an independent public school.

The bill also would authorize a pilot program to include up to five independent public schools to operate in a city of the metropolitan class. Currently, Omaha is Nebraska’s only city of the metropolitan class.

The state board would review the pilot program after five years and make a determination on renewing the schools’ compacts. Under the bill, the school district within which the pilot school is located would be required to provide student transportation to and from school.

Jason Epting, principal of Harlem Village Academies Charter School in New York City, testified in support of the bill. He said it is important not to label students, but instead to create an engaging learning environment.

“Our students who are impoverished are able to learn if you create an environment that caters to their needs,” he said. “We place a banner of impossibility over these students because of their socioeconomic status. Education really is the way to break the cycle of poverty.”

Kevin Lytle, vice president of programming at the Leadership Institute for Urban Education, also supported the bill. Lytle said growth in his north Omaha neighborhood has been stagnant, despite Omaha’s progress.

“If this small area isn’t growing, why are we not being open to all of the possibilities to help this small area grow?” he asked. “We’re not asking for anyone to come in and be our savior. We’re asking for the freedom to create things to help ourselves.”

State Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, representing the state board, opposed the bill. He said the board supports the goals of the bill, but not the execution.

“We are certainly not opposed to building-level leadership, creativity and autonomy,” he said. “We encourage organizing community support systems for schools. However, charter schools are not the only way to accomplish these goals.”

Rachel Pinkerton, representing the Liberty Education Advocacy Project, also testified in opposition to the bill. She said the newly reconfigured Omaha Public Schools (OPS) board needs time to turn things around.

“I started out a true believer in charter schools, but after years of research, I reluctantly came to see that as a false hope,” she said. “[This bill] would complicate, diffuse and undermine the OPS board’s focus.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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