Omaha in Black and White: The President’s Opportunity to Address Ongoing Disparity

Jan 13, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Katie Linehan

Today, President Obama will visit Omaha. This will be the president’s first visit to Nebraska since taking office in 2008. He should seize this opportunity to address an education system in Omaha that is failing too many children, and children of color in particular. The president also has an opportunity to address shocking and ongoing disparities in Omaha with regard to unemployment, violence, the juvenile justice system and the over-incarceration of black men. The president’s leadership has the potential to put Omaha on a better path. Sixteen months before President Obama took office, the Omaha World Herald published an article called Omaha in Black and White: Poverty Amid Prosperity. The article addressed troubling disparities along racial lines. The worst black child poverty rate in the country was one of many examples. Omaha’s mayor at the time pledged to address the academic achievement gap. The president of the Chamber of Commerce discussed a development plan for North Omaha, the heart of Omaha’s black community. There was also reference in the 2007 Omaha World Herald article to new initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty and improving educational outcomes for black and Latino children. Within one year, many of Omaha’s most generous philanthropists launched the Building Bright Futures initiative and, shortly thereafter, the Avenue Scholars Foundation, to do just that. A retired Omaha superintendent served as CEO of both. Within six years, Building Bright Futures shuttered after spending $50 million and showing no significant progress. During this same time, urban charter schools rapidly expanded around the nation. Children attending urban charter schools, on average, gain an additional 40 days of learning in math and 28 days of learning in reading each year. The benefits for poor children and children of color are even more substantial. Furthermore, children living in poverty who attend high-performing charter schools are not only more likely to perform better in school, but also more likely to attend college, less likely to experience teen pregnancy and less likely to be incarcerated. Yet, in 2016, Nebraska remains one of only seven states not to allow public charter schools. According to the Omaha World Herald, during his visit:
Obama is following up Tuesday night’s State of the Union address — his last — with a quick trip to Omaha to chat about “the progress we’ve made and how we can continue taking action in the next year to help hardworking Americans get ahead.” Nebraska’s low unemployment rate is just one reason why the White House thinks that the city makes a great backdrop for that conversation.
The president’s conversation regarding low unemployment should consider why Omaha has one of the worst black unemployment rates in the nation. In his ongoing efforts to address and reduce gun violence nationwide, President Obama also has an opportunity to address the violence plaguing Omaha: In 2011, Nebraska had the worst black homicide rate in the nation. There were 37 homicides in Omaha that year. In 2015, there were 50 homicides, the most in recorded history. Police speculate that at least half of the murders in Omaha are gang related. Black men make up a disproportionate percentage of gang members as well as incarcerated individuals, including juveniles in the criminal justice system. Gang members rarely graduate from high school. Of all juveniles entering into the court system, 85 percent are functionally illiterate. The same can be said for 60 percent of all prison inmates. Inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70 percent for those who received no help. Therefore, to adequately address gun violence, juvenile justice and over-incarceration, the president must also address black student outcomes in Nebraska. Though Nebraska has the second highest high school graduation rate in the country, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, Nebraska has the second worst graduation rate for black males (50 percent) and the largest black-white graduation gap in the nation. In 2013, black students in Nebraska performed worse on the National Assessment for Educational Progress in math than did black eighth-graders in any other state. Many schools in North Omaha have a combined math and reading proficiency rate below 20 percent. As a longtime champion of K-12 education reform, the president supports opening the doors to, and sustaining, high-performing public charter schools. The president’s courage to fight for such reforms has positively impacted children’s lives across the nation. Students, and students of color in particular, have been the benefactors. The president took such issues head-on before many in his party were willing to do so. Given his record of putting students first, despite the political risk, the president should not waste an opportunity to do the same in Omaha. If you are white, perhaps Omaha is the best place to live in the country: jobs are plentiful, neighborhoods are safe and high-quality schools are abundant, as is the opportunity to choose amongst them. But Omaha may be the worst place in America to be black: High-paying jobs are scarce, violence is rampant and the neighborhood schools are failing. The cause for such disparities may be complicated, but the opportunity for the president to address them is not.
An original version of this post appeared on Our Children Our Schools.

Katie Linehan

Katie Linehan in the Deputy Communications Director for the American Federation for Children, an educational choice advocacy organization, and has been involved in multiple initiatives to expand school choice to her home state of Nebraska. She spent more than a decade working with underserved youth, primarily in North and South Omaha, and as a middle school teacher at Success Academy Charter School in Harlem, New York City. Katie has been an advocate for meaningful education reform in Nebraska since 2010, launching multiple initiatives with that aim. Her other experience includes politics, law, living and working on three different continents, and volunteering with the Benson Area Refugee Task Force, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girls Inc. of Omaha, and the Lincoln Humane Society. Katie earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola University New Orleans and her law degree from the University of Nebraska College of Law.

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