Has the Learning Community Achieved its Purpose?

Has the Learning Community Achieved its Purpose?

This week the Nebraska Legislature will tackle the Learning Community. The debate has been ongoing since the controversial policy became law nine years ago, with repeated calls to repeal the law altogether.  The law has withstood such criticism and remains in place today.

Addressing disparities in K-12 education, the purpose of the Learning Community, is essential. However, the achievement gap in Nebraska has only grown in the past two decades and is now among the largest in the nation.

Originally, the Learning Community’s plan included opening innovative schools, expanding school choice, and creating a common and more equitable financing structure between multiple school districts (the common levy). Yet, since its implementation, not one new and innovative school has opened and choice has been rolled back (and was critically flawed from the start, often giving preference to privileged students over lower income students).

The Learning Community still requires a unique taxing structure, the purpose being to direct funds towards high poverty districts, but those districts are not required to direct those funds to high poverty schools. For example, the 2013 OPS needs analysis showed that OPS spent more at Alice Buffett Middle School in West Omaha than it did at middle schools with much higher free and reduced lunch rates in North and South Omaha. Meanwhile, districts like Douglas County West struggle to maintain basic building maintenance needs.

The Learning Community resulted from a threat of litigation against the state by OPS’ former superintendent, John Mackiel.  He argued that Nebraska was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to provide students with a K-12 education.  Today, attention has shifted away from implementing K-12 reforms and instead focused on expanding early childhood education and social services to families. While early childhood education is important and needed, the state has no constitutional duty to provide it. And the Department of Health and Human Services may be a more appropriate entity to address social services.

Like many conversations about K-12 education quality, funding and spending dominate the debate.  This arguably distracts policymakers from needed conversations regarding other policies proven to address inequity and the achievement gap. And, in the ten years spent debating the Learning Community in the legislature, little focus has been on outcomes.

Meanwhile, many states have adopted reforms to address the achievement gap and improve overall K-12 education quality.  Expanding school choice, raising standards, focusing on teacher quality, and increasing transparency and accountability are examples of reforms proven to close the achievement gap and improve K-12 education overall.

Students in Nebraska have one opportunity to receive a high quality K-12 education. Today’s high school seniors were in kindergarten when the debate ignited that ultimately led to the creation of the Learning Community. We must ask whether the policy is meeting its purpose or whether we should direct attention towards policies with a growing track record of closing the achievement gap and improving K-12 education for all students.