Moment of Truth

On a sunny morning at Omaha South High School, Principal Nancy Faber enters the performing arts wing to find a handful of students gathered around a piano. After a cheerful greeting and some lighthearted banter, the students cajole Faber into joining them in a rendition of country singer George Strait’s “I Cross My Heart.”

It’s an idyllic scene. And as the group -- white, black, and Hispanic -- raises its collective voice in song, this inner-city magnet school achieves the highest aspirations of public education: children from all walks of life learning together in a safe, caring environment.

Such a school should be celebrated by its community. But for the better part of two years, the Omaha Public Schools and its surrounding suburban districts -- indeed, much of Nebraska -- have been engaged in a difficult and contentious debate over how much they value such racially integrated schools as Omaha South High, and what price they are willing to pay to achieve such integration.

For most Americans, the only part of the debate that’s garnered attention was the state legislature’s passage of a bill dividing Omaha into three distinct school districts. And that made headlines last spring because the statute implied the new districts might be organized along racial lines, a prospect that civil rights groups condemned as a return to state-sponsored racial segregation.

There is much, much more to the story. Omaha’s real issue is the same one that confronts small metropolitan regions across the nation: What can policymakers do about the slow but steady migration of white and affluent families to outlying suburbs, a disturbing encore to the white flight that plagued larger cities in the 1970s and 1980s? It’s a trend that’s exacerbating racial and economic isolation in these small cities and making it harder for districts to promote diversity within the schools. What’s more, it threatens to undermine the districts’ academic success, for a host of reasons known all too well by educators.

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