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Inequalities In Public Schools

Macy Branson, Jordan Gibbs, Josie Andersen, Hawa Shatta & Lindsay Schnackenberg

Historically, the public education system in the United States has struggled with equality, and Omaha is no exception. Academic success continues to be undoubtedly disparate due to race and socioeconomic factors. Minorities and students with lower socioeconomic standings continue to receive an inadequate education and are additionally less equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to ensure a successful, fruitful future. This study seeks to emphasize how some students are at a disadvantage primarily due to their ascribed status.

Research Methodology

The data used in this study was collected from the Omaha World-Herald, various financial and demographic documents from Omaha and Millard public school records on their official websites,  research articles and data collections taken from The Nebraska Board of Education and Public School Research Division along with many other sources in order to understand the inequalities that are present in the public-school system. This study uses the information gathered to analyze and report on the diversity, economics, and academics inequalities present in the public school program in Omaha today. Using around 40 different sources, multiple data collection tables and an orienting memo was created to layout multiple imbalances observed within the education system.

Findings And Analysis


It has been shown that the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) have been re-segregated today. According to Sasse (2018), racism was a huge issue in Omaha Public Schools from 1946-1962 and Herb Rhodes, a North Omaha Civil rights leader quotes that Harry Burke once “proclaimed that as long as he was superintendent, there would not be a black educator in the school system, other than the two schools that served the black community.” Racism runs deep into the roots of the OPS system and supposedly today it still very much so exists. The current racial demographics of OPS according to the U.S. Department of Education are Hispanic or Latino: 10,648, White: 53,974, Black or African American: 18,578, American Indian or Alaska Native: 861, Asian: 1,160, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander: 49, Other: 5,635. North Omaha schools have the largest percentage of African American students and demonstrate racial unevenness in schools, these schools include: North, Blackburn, and Northwest. The schools with the largest number of White students include: Burke, Buffet Middle, and Davis Middle. According to Sasse (2018), all of this leads to the fact that it is a problem of ineffective administration of resources among OPS. According to the district detail for Millard Public Schools (MPS), their schools are predominately white, in the 2017-2018 school year, 28,252 students were white, 481 African American, 865 Hispanic or Latino, 84 Indian or Alaska native, 498 Asian, 12 Hawaiian or pacific Islander, and 245 other. That is about 75% of the school being white, and MPS is one of the top education systems in Omaha. Are people of color being segregated to schools with lower quality staff and education? According to Nance (2017), “it is more common that students of color, especially low-income students of color, to be in overcrowded classrooms, attend schools in deplorable physical condition, and be taught by educators who are less experienced, less credentialed and lower paid” (p. 767). In North Omaha, the conditions within the schools are not as nice as they are in the Millard public schools or in West Omaha.


This happens all over the United States, for example Turner (2014) states, “Orleans Parish School System (OPSS) that serves primarily Black students was ranked the worst in Louisiana, a state that measures 49th in education in the U.S.  Prior to Katrina at least 50% of all school buildings in OPSS were in need of at least one major repair such as roofing, plumbing, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning” (p. 106). These schools in Louisiana that had predominantly African Americans and people of color had worse conditions than those schools that were predominately white. In the book Intro to Sociology 2e, they talk about issues in education and they touch on this specific subject saying, “The long-term socially embedded effects of racism—and other discrimination and disadvantage—have left a residual mark of inequality in the nation’s education system. Students from wealthy families and those of lower socioeconomic status do not receive the same opportunities.”


Diversity is a shared value across the districts. Omaha public school(OPS) is becoming increasingly more diverse (Increasing yearly). 27.5% of the student population is African American, 31.4% is Caucasian, and 32.3% are Hispanic. The Student population learning English is also growing (15.6% of the student population). Over 96 languages other than English are spoken at home. The districts refugee population is also growing, 58% from the 2001-02 school year. The special education students make up 16.5% of the district. Millard public schools (MPS) minority enrollment is 20%. When broken down its 2.9% African American, 6.3% Hispanic, 4.6% Asian and White students make up 85.8%. The English Learners make up 1.47% of the student body and 12.94% of the Students enrolled  are in the Special education program.


The U.S is rapidly becoming more diverse with 2050 projections indicating that non-whites will be 54% of the U.S population (Parson & Turner 2014). Ironically, as society is becoming more diverse schools are becoming more segregated. New Orleans public schools in 1960 were 58% black and 42% white and in 2010 it was 93% black and less than 3% white. The whites went to private schools. This is a trend that public schools are experiencing nationwide. Predominantly non-white schools lack qualified teachers, experience higher teacher turnover and have inadequate facilities. The schools also receive less financial and public support and the curriculum does not prepare students for higher education (Parson & Turner). Diversity in education has many benefits. A study found that college students who grew up in a diverse environment exhibited less racial and ethnic prejudice than students who interacted mainly with those of similar backgrounds. Diversity in schools also prepares children for the increasingly diverse nation.

Several studies have gone to show that black students suffer harsher punishments than white classmates of the same or similar infractions. Black students make up 25 percent of the entire student population in Omaha Public Schools; however, there is a higher percent of disciplined incidents involving students of color than there is that of white students. In fact, African Americans in OPS have a higher suspension and expulsion rate than any other race in OPS. In the 2015-16 school year, 60 percent of the 227 expulsions were of black students. This means that approximately 136 out of the total 694 black students in OPS received a suspension (19.5 percent), whereas, only 91 out of the other 2,151 non-black students received suspensions (4.2 percent). Also, 83 percent of all school assignments were to students of color. If a school was equally proportioned with black and white students but had the same reassignment rate by race as OPS, then there would be 15 black students assigned for every one white student reassigned. Overall, black students accounted for 55 percent of all incidents, infractions or disciplined events in the 2015-16 school year (Griffiths, H., Keirns, N., Strayer, E., Cody-Rydzewski, S., Scaramuzzo, G., Sadler, T.,… Jones, F.). A recent study and interview or students within a minority based school explained how their school “feels like a prison” because of all the safety officers, metal detectors, random searches and pat downs these students go through every day, and also proved that racial bias positively correlates with the amount of student surveillance present in the school and the likelihood to punish involve law enforcement (WAX, A. L).


Discrimination comes in many forms in today’s society: educational, criminal, economic and political(Griffiths, H., Keirns, N., Strayer, E., Cody-Rydzewski, S., Scaramuzzo, G., Sadler, T.,… Jones, F.). However, discrimination is commonly looked past, especially in schools. Students of minority, specifically African American students, are more commonly and severely punished than white students in white majority schools. The disproportionate amount of disciplined accounts toward black individuals reflects racial profiling, or institutional racism; the way racism is embedded in the fabric of society. Students and facility subconsciously turn to racialization and stereotypes to help explain inequality and disparity they observe, simply because they lack any further explanation (Ispa-Landa, S., & Conwell, J. (2015)). Therefore, since predominantly white schools have been labeled as “superior” by society, automatically any individual that doesn’t fit into that category becomes inferior to the white race. Schools thrive off of uniformity because it is a common misconception that those who stand out cause problems. This being reason why it would seem permissible to be unforgiving or harsher to the individuals that don’t the status quo. However, when actions are consistently taken upon an individual group of students without sufficient reasoning (stereotyping), it becomes a form of genocide; The action of weeding out the subordinate group (Griffiths, H., Keirns, N., Strayer, E., Cody-Rydzewski, S., Scaramuzzo, G., Sadler, T.,… Jones, F.). Students of color that are in black majority schools, however, still feel they get excessive student surveillance than those at white schools. A recent study and interview or students within a minority based school explained how their school “feels like a prison” because of all the safety officers, metal detectors, random searches and pat downs these students go through every day, and also proved that racial bias positively correlates with the amount of student surveillance present in the school and the likelihood to punish involve law enforcement (WAX, A. L). Because of this large divide between treatment of white and black students, it is apparent how students of color could lose trust in their school, as their school seems to have lesser trust in them.

 School Funding and Spending

The total revenue for Millard Public Schools was, in total, $247,616,000 in the 2017-2018 school year for all 36 schools. $14,924,00 came from the federal government, $131,221,000 came from local sources, and $101,471,000 came from the state. If divided evenly would leave about $7 Million for each Millard School. For Omaha Public Schools, there are 95 schools and 52,881 students  and their total revenue for the 2017-2018 school year is about $928 million, 55% comes from state funding, 13% from federal, and 32% from local. If divided evenly between schools, it would leave about $10 million per school. According to the district detail for MPS, over half ($131 million) of the revenue is used toward instructional expenditures and 10% is used for student and staff support, 10% for administration, 17% for operations, food service, etc., and $15 million was used on construction. For OPS, the majority of their revenue (47.23%) is spent on regular instruction, 12.02% on special education, 9.30% on building and grounds, 1.84% on board of education and general admin, 5.67% on business support services, .86% on early childhood education, .47% on early childhood special education, 2.98% on instructional support, 1.03% on regular summer school, 5.97% on school administration, 5.81% on student support, 6.58% on transport, and 1.84% is miscellaneous programs.  Although OPS brings in more money than MPS, OPS has three times the amount of schools and staffing. I said earlier, if divided evenly, each school would get an equal amount of money but, this is not the case, I was giving a better comparison of how much money OPS and MPS brought in within the year. Depending on what school a student goes to in Omaha, that student will receive a different quality of education based on where the school is located, schools in North Omaha tend to be lower quality than those in West Omaha.


According to Roscigno (2006), “Educational spending is measured as the current level of spending per pupil from all (federal, state, and local) sources. Some prior research has shown that higher per-pupil expenditures leads to higher student educational achievement and attainment. Expenditure per pupil reflects a resource pool that can be differentially invested by district and school administrators into direct instruction, building maintenance, school security, and other necessities” (p. 2127).  Roscigno is saying that educational spending is vital to a school’s academic performance success.  Everywhere around the United States has been affected by this, schools with the lowest academic performance rates generally have the least amount of funding.

Poverty Rates

The Nebraska Department of Education’s state of the schools report in the 2014-2015 school year reported that 73.26 % of Omaha public school (OPS) kids live in poverty and 17.99% of Millard public school (MPS) kids do. Poverty affects a student’s ability to perform to their fullest potential. “Truly disadvantaged schools”, a term coined by Bryk and his colleagues, are schools with a high minority, high amount of low-income students and that are in a high poverty neighborhood. There’s a strong correlation between racial segregation and achievement gaps and the key is to have a racial and socioeconomic balance. MPS has 0% truly disadvantaged schools and OPS has 11%.  Race, ethnicity, family, income, and neighborhood resources are all entangled and are huge components in ending inequality in education.


Health and nutrition go hand in hand, but so does intelligence. A study was done by two neuroscientist that strongly suggest intelligence is linked to health (Gary & Thompson 2004). Children who grow up in poor families usually don’t have access to a wholesome, balanced diet. The neighborhoods are also located in food deserts. Skipping breakfast also negatively affects student achievements(Kaniz 2018). When schools who have a majority of low income, minority students academic performance increase and the inequality will decrease.

 Free/Reduced Lunch

The percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch can be used as a measure for the number of students living in poverty and can also relate to academic success within a school district. According to the 2015-16 District Free And Reduced-Price Lunch Program report for Omaha Public Schools, in order for a student to be granted free lunch, their household income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty income threshold. A student from a household with an income between 130 percent and up to 185 percent of the poverty threshold is eligible for reduced-price lunch. Omaha Public Schools provide free/reduced lunches to a high percentage of their student, which is directly related to their poverty rate of 73.26% in the 2016 academic year. While on the other side of town, Millard Public Schools have fewer students receiving free/reduced lunches and only have a poverty rate of 17.99%.  OPS has also reported a correlation between student’s academics and their qualification for free lunches. For the 2015-2016 academic year, 83% of the students who failed one or more required class were members of the free/reduced lunch program (Omaha Public School Research Division 2016). Not only did the statistics display academic success during high school, but they also reported post-secondary school enrollment rates. Self-pay students were slightly more likely to attend 4-year university (+2.6%), while students in the free or reduced lunch programs were more likely to attend a community college (+3.4%) (Omaha Public School Research Division 2016). Omaha Public School’s high percentages of free or reduced lunches provide insight into how economics can directly affect student’s scholarly success within high school, and even after.


Access to equal and quality education has been regarded as the birthright of all children, regardless of class or race. Unfortunately, public schools have never quite lived up to the high hopes envisioned decades ago (Nieto, 2005). The socioeconomic composition of a school’s student population can affect student’s academic achievement. Schools across the United States with high poverty rates and high percentages of students receiving free/reduced-price lunches tend to have lower academic success. Students with lower ascribed statuses are provided with lower quality educations, which keep them from improving and continuing their education. The amount of students in the free/reduced lunch program emphasizes the overall academic achievements in public school and post-secondary schools.

Failing Rates

Educators are becoming more focusing on ninth-grade as the year that determines whether a young person will continue their education or drop out. Attendance, behavior, and course performance are believed to be the most accurate measurements of whether students will further their educational career or not. Within the Omaha Public School District, when compared to the demographic makeup of the 2015-16 high school student body, students eligible for free or reduced lunch, former and current English Language Learners, Special Education students, Hispanic, and African American students are overrepresented in the students who failed at least one course that is a requirement for graduation (Omaha Public School Research Division 2016). Falling behind in required classes such as math, english, and science may cause many issues with the student, such as being held back or even dropping out since they are unable to meet graduation requirements. Due to the importance of the ninth-grade year as a predictor of high school academic success, it is important to show that nearly one-third of the ninth-grade students in OPS were not on track to graduate in four years after their first year in high school.


In order to achieve a promising future of intelligent individuals, it is important for students to be passing their required courses and continuing on the path to higher learning. The amount of students that move forward in education relies on the school systems and community. Quality schools produce strong individuals and help communities to remain wealthy. In contrast, struggling schools are often associated with struggling communities and high levels of unemployment, crime, and illness. Low-wealth communities lack the resources to support quality schools on their own, creating a cycle of social and economic disadvantage that is hard to break (Motiram & Nugent, 2007). Students in these environments are set up to fail and need the assistance of their school and families to break the standards and go above and beyond. Public schools in the United States need to promote healthy learning environments in order to ensure that students are aware of the importance of education and also focus on preparing them for standardized tests such as the  ACT and preparedness for post-secondary education.

 ACT Scores
The ACT is a standardized test that is designed to predict the success a student will have as a typical college freshman in 4 categories: math, science, English and reading. In 2016, the ACT replaced the NeSA as the required standardized test in Nebraska for junior year students. Although the ACT is largely important in the acceptance to colleges, before the law change, students were not required to take the test. Since 2016, all 11th-grade students in Nebraska have been required to take the exam on the selected test date. A student that reaches the desired “benchmark” means that they have a 50 percent probability of earning a B or higher  and a 75 percent probability of earning a C or higher in a college class of that subject. With results of students that reached the benchmark per school in the OPS district, ACT benchmark rates vary substantially between students with low economic status versus middle/ upper-class students. Between these two groups, there stood a 50-70 percent gap in students reaching the ACT benchmark. Elkhorn South, a school with a low poverty rates, lead the OPS district with benchmarks reached 62 percent of the junior population in math, 61 percent in science and 80 percent in English. At the bottom of the list was Benson, a school where 78.8 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Benson had only 3 percent of all test takers reach the benchmark in math, 3 percent in science and 6 percent in English. The average math benchmark rate between the 7 OPS schools was 11.3 percent, as opposed to the 42.1% success rate in the other 16 public schools in near Omaha. A recent study discovered that residential estates in Omaha are segregated by race, and ACT scores can help support their findings that stratification is a primary mechanism that enhances white advantage and non-white disadvantage (Roscigno, V. J., Tomaskovic-Devey, D., & Crowley, M).

There are multiple factors that play into the academic achievement of an individual. For years there have been gaps in academic outcomes due to socioeconomic status and race, and this was found to be a consistent feature of American life (Nance, J. P.). However,  it had been hard to measure these exact differences among schools, making it easy to turn away from the issue. Even though each school in Nebraska has the same curriculum, in years past it had been hard to accurately measure which schools were producing the most academically successful students due to individual differences between schools. It is comfortable to ignorantly assume there is no problem within a school district, especially without sufficient evidence stating otherwise. When the ACT became a required test to every high school junior in Nebraska, a steady comparison could be made among schools, and the results were staggering. Schmidt Bonne revealed that the test scores do, in fact,  closely align with a district’s rates of poverty, numbers of special education students and those learning English for the first time. Results from schools with primarily low socioeconomic status and students of a minority have at least 10 times less the achievement of schools that are primarily white or middle/upper class, like Elkhorn south. Overall, ACT scores are a large indicator of college preparedness, unfortunately, they are substantially influenced by social class in the city of Omaha.

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College Preparedness

When it comes to college preparation, there are some obvious signs that the middle and upper class are at a major advantage. When looking at the Omaha Public Schools Follow-up of High School Graduates Class of 2016, we can see that Burke High and Central High have the highest percentage of students that attend a secondary education following high-school. One of the largest factors to forgo education for the 2016 graduates was the inability to obtain the funding. 48% of the students who checked this box as a reason they weren’t pursuing a secondary education were in the free/reduced lunch program. Only 29% of the students who were in the self-pay lunch program marked this as their reason.

Graduation rates for the state of Nebraska for 2016 are at about a 90% average. In 2016, the OPS district average is roughly 10% lower than the state average. The only school that was relatively close to the state average is Burke High school at 87%. Coming in second is Central High at 82%, and the lowest percentage in the OPS district is Benson High Magnet at about 72%. When we look closer to just the white students’ statistics, we can see that for Benson Magnet High has a significantly higher percentage of white students that have failed one or more courses (district average is 21% and Benson Magnet is 32%). Meanwhile, at Burke High, the percentage of white students who have failed at least one course almost halved at about 12% and Central High’s percentage is only 15%! These numbers pose a lot of questions and raise quite a lot of concern throughout our district. This trend of these percentages is consistent for all of the race/ethnic groups other than Asian students. The district average of African American students that have failed at least one course is roughly 42%. At Benson Magnet High, 45% of their African American students have failed one course; meanwhile at Burke High, only 34% of their African American students have failed at least one course. Additionally, 83% of the students that have failed at least one course were eligible for the free/reduced lunch program as well as 88% of the students that failed 5 or more. The percentage of African American students who qualify for free/reduced lunches at Burke High school is 17.5%. This number is nearly doubled at Benson Magnet High at 33%. The percentage of students eligible for free/reduced lunches is higher at Benson High than at Burke High for every racial/ ethnic group. While it may not be obvious why Benson has a lower graduation-rate based on race alone, adding in the factor of the free/reduced lunches (indicates poverty levels) can start drawing some clear lines. Income and poverty levels can significantly impact the education of these students both indirectly and directly.


Graduation rates vary by high school, with Burke typically graduating the largest percentage of students (Omaha Research Division). Benson, on the other hand, has the lowest percentage of students to graduate. Additionally, Hispanic and Black students tested ready at a rate one to two times lower then their fellow White students in the 2015 ACT (Omaha Community Foundation). Higher education directly corresponds to greater earning potential. Within Omaha alone, people with a bachelor’s degree earn $18,000 more annually than those without a college degree. With the inability to pay for college being majority of the reason why students don’t acquire a secondary education, it’s safe to say that the income gap is not only causing problems for low-income students to attend college; but also, low-income students to get higher paying jobs to get out of the low-income pay bracket.


This study displays the disadvantages and unequal opportunities among students in Omaha Public Schools from a variety of different backgrounds. Because of these drawbacks to minorities and lower class individuals, it provides certain challenges to obtain equal opportunities as their white/higher class counterparts. As long as these issues progress into the future without receiving adequate attention, the academic success of future students will decline, causing harm within their own communities and beyond.



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