Written by Leah Bifano, Taylor Grace, Kyle Browne, and Jaden Hesman.
Education serves the purpose of passing along culture, knowledge, and ideas to our next generation. From a sociological perspective, education teaches children how to grow up as individuals in the society in which we live, while learning how to think for themselves and develop their own ideas and ways of thinking. The school system is one of the main environments in which children learn to socialize with others as well as how to act once they become adults. This socialization, however, is also affected by predetermining factors, such as geographic location, socioeconomic status, and sometimes, even race. In Omaha, communities are divided due to location as an effect of socioeconomic status, and the segregation of minority groups correlates with certain locations as well. This article attempts to discuss that nature of the district split within Omaha Public Schools, why it had occurred, and how it affects Omaha’s education system today.
A Brief History of Education in Omaha
Omaha public schools came under fire from 2005 to 2006 for its proposed bill LB 1024. Its goal was to divide OPS (Omaha Public Schools) into 3 distinct school districts. The bill received a lot of opposition from the community and educators said it would further racial segregation that had been started by allowing parents to choose what school their child attended within the district. The bill was signed into effect by Senator Ernie Chambers on April 13th 2006; it was later repealed on September 8, 2006 when the US Commission on Civil Rights conducted a briefing to better understand the bill effects on minority and non-minority students. Ten panelists were consulted which included government officials, community activists, parents, and others who were representing a board segment in the Omaha community (Omaha Public Schools Issues and Implications of Nebraska Legislative Bill 2014).
The current district layout consists of twelve districts that serve different communities. The schools by district are as follows: Bellevue East and West High Schools under the Bellevue Public School District, Bennington High School under Bennington Public School District, Elklhorn and Elkhorn South High Schools under the Elkhorn Public School District, Millard North, West, and South High Schools under the Millard Public School District, Benson, Magnet, Bryan, Burke, Career Center School, Central, North, Northwest, South and Technical High Schools under OPS, Papillion La-Vista and Papillion La-Vista South High Schools under Papillion La-Vista Public School District, Ralston High School under Ralston Public School District, and Westside under Westside Community School District. In 2013-2014, ESU No. 19 served approximately:
- 51,070 students
- 3,908 teachers
- 82 public schools
- 14 alternative programs
- 275 administrators
- 1,105 support staff members
Omaha has enlarged into a metropolitan city, and because of the diversity that had emerged it was thought by Omaha leaders that splitting up the schools into separate districts would better serve the communities, including those considered to be minorities. The idea was that each district would help the corresponding communities academically, financially, and socially. The theory of Functionalism focuses on each aspect of society and how it contributes to the needs of society as a whole.
The Functionalism perspective focuses on how education affects society. It examines how schools function as according to the needs of the citizens within the society; these needs can be intellectual, political, social, and economic. Education is needed to further advance each generation of children and young adults. The government in the United States puts a law in place that states that every child needs to at least get a primary, fundamental level of education as to make certain that our society’s children are not behind. Sociologists who examine the functionalist theory mainly look at the roles of schools and education in modern, democratic societies.
According to “Sociology of Education” by Alan R. Sodovnik states that modern democratic societies placed value on meritocracy, or the idea that one moves ahead as according to their talent and hard work. Schools in modern-day societies fulfill such purposes; an education ensures that the majority of citizens move up in society and become successful by learning fundamental skills and then ideally a skill in a specified area.
However, not all citizens have the same opportunities in the United States. We live in a democratic society where the opportunities to achieve the skills one needs at an adequate level depends on one’s background, and in the U.S. there are many citizens that are born of different backgrounds. Functionalism also recognizes that inequality is also apart of the workings of society and this is very much true when looking at education. Sarah Reckhow, in her paper “Following the Money Trail from Foundations to Urban School Districts”, presented in the MPSA National Conference, says that “ Low student achievement is not a determinant of foundation funding for a district; many of the nation’s worst school districts receive relatively little outside grant money.” Money in plays a huge role in the socio-economics of education; there is low achievement where there are low funds for schools. This is the root of segregation: school districts are divided by how they are supported by funds which in turn divides families as according to how they can support these funds which then also divides by ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. This certainly is no different in the city of Omaha, where race and class is divided into different sects of the city and is seen even more-so because of the district split. According to Vicki Alger, PhD, in Platte Institute Policy Study, Comparing Public and Private Schools in Omaha, the Omaha public school community overall contains a population of 81.9% white students, with meager populations of 5.5% Hispanic students and 4.5% black students, as shown in the graph as figure 1 below. This study was done and these statistics were found in 2013. Therefore, racial segregation is still relevant to our school communities. According to Jeremy E. Fiel in “Decomposing School Resegregation: Social Closure, Racial Imbalance, and Racial Isolation”, sociologists measure the rates of racial imbalance, or in other words, racial unevenness, to study segregation within school districts. These measures reveal just how much students, especially those of minority groups, are distributed unevenly across school districts.
Fig 1, Source: Vicki Alger, Public and Private Schools in Omaha (Platte Institute Policy Study) pg. 6
In 2006, the idea of Bill 1024 emerged from the idea of splitting up school districts within the city. Martha Stoddard in an Omaha World Herald article entitled, “Heavy hitters decry plan as bad for business – OPS Split Hard to Derail”, demonstrates the different views on the split-up idea among Omaha leaders: some said it was “segregationist” while others said it was “reasonable”. Reasons as to why the OPS split was heavily considered were in regard to the benefits that were thought to come from the splitting schools into smaller districts. Many supporters thought, for example, that this would be more efficient in terms of education and community involvement. Each community and school district would get more individual attention. Others thought, however, that splitting up the OPS district would not help support businesses within the community. “The comments came prior to a warning Saturday from the city’s business elite, who said enacting the plan as law would be a national embarrassment and would harm business development in Nebraska”, as cited in the World Herald article.
From a functionalist perspective overall, the split within the OPS district was thought to serve the purposes of dividing up various communities and giving them the attention needed as according to finances and academic attention. However, some of the downsides included grade inflation and dividing students socially as according to their ethnicity and financial background.
A school, with a purpose to teach and improve individuals, is certainly one of the most social places we ever will be. Symbolic interactionism provides a unique perspective on education because it focuses on the personal view of the interactions. There is an abundance of casual and formal signs, from the everyday conversations to the honor roll list, all adding to the influence on students. The micro-sociology of a school would be overwhelming to study, however there are some hot topics related to the subject.
Labeling in education is very controversial, as such titles once imposed are difficult to get rid of. In theory it seems logical, to classify students as high ability or as problematic in a classroom setting to provide them a tailored education. Instead these labels tend to shape a teachers expectations, or start a chain reaction into a self-fulfilling prophecy for the pupil. However federal and local funding for special education is based on categories of disabilities.
From a monetary standpoint, the differences between public and private education rock the boat. It is estimated the average funding for an OPS student is around $2,800 more than the combined tuition average,K-12, for a private school. When narrowed to elementary, that number is over $4,500 different. Represented in Figure 2, provided by Vicki E. Alger in her Platte Institute Study, this graph shows national private school tuition in relation to OPS per pupil revenue. It is likely private tuition is even lower than those numbers suggests as many families don’t get charged in full, and most schools participate in scholarship programs. Also each student that completes their K-12 is a private school saves taxpayers around $163,000. While that number represents money used to build the schools as well, and student funding is accounted for differently in each system, the numbers are notable. In this modern world, money is on every mind and to improve education funding will need to continue to chase efficiency.
Grade Inflation, the idea that A grade work today is not equivalent to A grade work in recent decades was a hot topic in Omaha, November of 2014. New information was provided regarding the OPS inflation in 2010. “(There is a) problem with the grading scale at the lower end causing grade inflation, which makes it possible for students with only small amounts of evidence to have averages that land in the D range. In other words, students may be passing with a D even though there is not enough evidence to indicate that the student has an acceptable depth of knowledge to pursue the next level,” as stated by the school board president in regards to the topic “KETV”. This statement is clear evidence of the feelings that get involved with a students success. At what point have you crossed the line of helping and hurting a pupils future.
Parents strive to be certain their child is receiving the best education possible, and lawmakers work to curb this desire. As mentioned else where in this article, symbolic interactionism provides an original perspective LB 1024. Raikes, chairman of the Education Committee, said Chambers’ amendment offered a unique opportunity to reorganize the state’s largest school district to provide more local control. The segregation being a negative result of Omaha’s racial property demographic, not the purpose of the bill. However the bill was bound by it’s obvious segregation, and the monetary debates that would commence. “On the surface, it seems like a recipe for a lawsuit,” said Ben Gray, co-chairman of OPS’ African-American Achievement Council. “World Herald Break up Plan” While there is much debate as far as how to properly educate, we can all agree that education is of the most important functions of a successful society.
From bond issues, PTA, school sports, busing, to the honor roll list in the paper, our concept of schools is constantly changing. Over time formal education will only continue to get better as new problems present themselves. Something as complicated as our preparation for the future should never be considered perfected, but many brilliant individuals dedicate their lives to improving the system.
Unlike the other two theories presented before, the Conflict theory takes a look at the “big picture” and the day to day happenings of groups and individuals. The conflict theory primarily focuses on major cultural and societal divides and points of contention. A primary focus when the theory first emerged was the stark differences between the classes. The conflict theory has several different schools of thought within it that take a look at all aspects of “the status quo” and the various clashes that individuals and groups have with it.
There have only been a few theorists that have critiqued our education system and how it ultimately shapes the individual you become including skills and place in society. Some conflict sociologists believe that schools are one more tool that dominant groups utilize to condition and essentially “train” our children to maintain their dominant place in society. Sociology of Education by Alan Sadovnik puts it “From a conflict theorists point of view, schools are similar to social battlefields, where students struggle against teachers, teachers against administrators, and so on.” Conflict theorists draw parallels between the organizations of school and the organization of society, and since education is standardized the dominant group can impose their will across the society. Another common argument for the conflict theorists would be the over standardization of education has caused students to become alienated from their education, they no longer feel a part of the teaching process. With our current education system students cannot choose an education path until mid to late high school and through college, most students must make up their mind within a very short window about their career and what they would like to do for the rest of their lives. Only those students who are willing to go into great debt with student loans or those who have wealthy parents are able to take full advantage of the education system and try different classes to find what fits them.
According to a policy study by the Platte Institute “Nebraska is home to the 1923 Supreme Court ruling in Meyer vs. State of Nebraska affirming the right of parents to control their children’s education. By law, Nebraska parents may also choose the public school or district they think is best regardless of where they live.” This ruling means that parents have much more control over their children’s education leading to a plethora of education options. Private schools have taken off in and around Omaha, leading to a much more rich and diverse education system around Omaha. 13% of public schools are located within a suburb while only 8 percent of private schools are located in an Omaha suburb and Omaha private school communities have a lower median household income that public school communities, $48,000 compared to $56,000.
This figure shows that Omaha has great scholarship and alternate funding options for private schools. The trade off for private schools having more control over your child’s education is the ties to a religious denomination, most have certain requirements for amount of hours spent in some form of religious study.
As was made certain, education is a very complex issue in relation to sociology and it’s importance is impossible to deny. Viewed in each perspective it’s clear that Omaha’s educational system is very complex, together with society it provides much insight into the culture and progress of the city. From the center of hot political debate to the surprising qualities of it’s private school system, Omaha education is full of sociological interest. It is our combined hope that by reading the research compiled, you will not only better understand Omaha but each sociology concept presented.
Alger, Vicki E. “Comparing Public and Private Schools in Omaha”. Platte Institute Study. ed. January 2013. Print. April 2015. (Secondary data)
Denvir, Daniel. “The Resegregation of America’s Schools”. Al Jazeera America. 16 May 2014. Web. April 2015.
Fiel, Jeremy E. “Decomposing School Resegregation: Social Closure, Racial Imbalance, and Social Isolation”. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Sociology. 2010. Print. April 2015.
Stoddard, Martha. “Heavy hitters decry plan as bad for business – OPS spit hard to derail – Even opponents say state lawmakers seem ready to endorse it. – Suburban petition drive next?” Omaha World Herald. 2006. Print.
Reckhow, Sarah. “Waiting for Bill Gates: Following the Money Trail from Foundations to Urban School Districts” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the MPSA Annual National Conference, Palmer House Hotel, Hilton, Chicago, IL, Apr 03, 2008
Sadovnik, Alan R. “Sociology of Education”. Sage Knowledge. Sage, Print. April 2015.
Nebraska. US Commission on Civil Rights. Omaha Public Schools: Issues and Implications of Nebraska Legislative Bill 1024. Omaha, Nebraska. Hilton Omaha Hotel. September 2006. Print.
Robb, Jeffrey. “Critics: Breakup plan segregates- OPS would be split in three- Roll call- If one became three-West OPS” World-Herald Bureau