- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Dick Eisenhauer is tired of watching white families take their children out of the schools in his Nebraska district and enroll them in smaller, outlying ones, where there are virtually no poor or Hispanic students.

Like many of Nebraska’s school systems, the Lexington district where Mr. Eisenhauer is superintendent has seen an influx of Hispanics, largely because of jobs at the meatpacking plants, and an accompanying exodus of white students to public elementary schools just outside town.

And there is nothing Mr. Eisenhauer can do about it. Nebraska law allows students to switch schools without giving a reason.

“It bothers you when people come into your town and make comments like ‘You’ve got lots of Mexican kids,’” he said. “I feel distressed if they would opt out for that reason.”

The situation in Lexington and elsewhere in Nebraska has caught the attention of the state Legislature, which is considering a bill to thwart what some say amounts to de facto segregation in the schools.

The proposal would force the outlying elementary-only schools to merge with larger kindergarten-through-12th-grade districts. That could mean the closing of the smaller schools.

Beginning in the 1960s, white flight to the suburbs left many big-city school systems across the country predominantly black. But what is happening in Nebraska is a different phenomenon: The white families are staying put, but they are sending their kids to school outside town.

This is possible because Nebraska, unlike many other states and communities, does not require students to attend the schools in the district in which they live.

As a result, in Lexington, the in-town schools, with an enrollment of 2,500, have 804 students learning English as a second language, and 1,172 who are getting a free or reduced-price lunch. The six outlying elementary schools have about 130 students — none of them learning English as a second language and none of them living in poverty, according to the state Education Department.

The situation is similar in and around the small town of Schuyler, which also has seen an influx of Hispanics in recent years. There are 250 students there who are learning to speak English. None of them attends the outlying schools. Of 325 students living in poverty, all but 18 go to school in town.

At the same time, spending per student in the outlying schools is as much as twice as high as spending in the Schuyler grade schools. All public schools in Nebraska are primarily funded with local property taxes and state aid, which is based in part on enrollment.

Many Hispanics are not aware of what is happening, but if they did “they would be up in arms,” said state Sen. Ray Aguilar, the Legislature’s only Hispanic.

Chris Dvorak, a white parent whose two children attend a school outside Schuyler, said she sent her children there to avoid overcrowding in town, not to get away from Hispanics.

“I would have done the same thing if they were all white kids,” she said.

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