Special Education in OPS: Legalized Segregation and its Effect On Special Education

Destinie Bradberry-Tripp, Bryce Johnson, & Raymond Bernal


This study examines the segregation of the city of Omaha through its school districts and the effect this has on special education.  Scholarly journal articles, school district information, data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and various secondary sources aided in gathering data about each Omaha school zone and each school district.  This data was put together in various charts, tables, and graphs to compare demographics within each school zone and district.  The study found that school zones with a higher percentage of non-white students have a lower graduation rate, lower socioeconomic status, and a higher demand for special education programs.  The opposite was true for school districts with a high percentage of Caucasian students.  With this information together, the study concluded that the school districts are still segregated based on race and that African American students are more likely to be in special education.




The quality of education provided to students by their schools can depend on what school they attend and the demographics of the area in which the school is located. Race and class have been a factor in the allocation of resources to schools since the birth of our nation’s school systems, in both pre and post desegregation.   As a divided city, one can assume demographics play a large role in the resources provided to schools located in the Omaha area.  In this project, school district information, maps and budget reports will be analyzed and compared across zip codes in the city of Omaha to determine if the districts in Nebraska are still segregated based on race and how this affects the special education program in Omaha Public Schools.


Purpose of the Study

The resources provided to students by their schools can depend on what school they attend and the demographics of the area in which the school is located. Race and class have been a factor in the allocation of resources to schools since the birth of our nation’s school systems, in both pre and post desegregation.   As a divided city, one can assume demographics play a large role in the resources provided to schools located in the Omaha area.  In this project, school district information, maps and budget reports will be utilized.  This data will be carefully analyzed and compared across zip codes in the city of Omaha to determine whether or not race and class do play a part in the resources that are available to kids in Omaha’s special education programs.



The study utilized scholarly journal articles to gain knowledge about data already collected that is related to the demographics of students in special education along with what qualified students to enroll in a special program.  Secondary data was collected from various websites, including the Omaha Public Schools district site to obtain budget reports for each high school, IDEA funds for the state of Nebraska, the demographics of students in each school, and the number of children on free and reduced lunch.  The Nebraska Department of Education was briefly utilized as well to obtain information on where funds from IDEA Part B section 611 go within the state of Nebraska.

Various maps played a significant role in the study to determine how student demographics in each school correspond with the demand of special education programs in each zip code.  The study compared information collected from the maps with the students demographic data located on the Omaha Public Schools district website.  This aided in gaining a clear picture of which areas were densely populated with minority students that also had a high demand for special education programs.

The study gathered information from the secondary data, scholarly journal articles, and maps to examine the demographics of both the students and school zones along with notional funding for secondary special education programs.  A table was created to specify how many special education programs managed by the Omaha Public School district were in each Omaha zip code with information from the school district website.

 Racial History of Omaha

The Omaha Public School district was desegregated in 1975, with 57,167 students enrolled in Kindergarten to 12th grade (16-17 OPS Official Membership).  Since then, the Omaha Public Schools enrollment has decreased by nearly 8,000 students, yet racial segregation is a continuing trend in the city.  If law desegregated the schools nearly 40 years ago, how could it still be an issue for such a large, diverse city?

Public schools are funded by both the federal government and the state government; however, the main source of funding a school receives originates from the property taxes of surrounding houses in the school’s zone.  When the district was desegregated in 1975, this funding tactic was used to keep the city segregated.  This meant that the value of the property in which one could afford to live determined the quality of education children received.  This is the underlying reason that the schools are not consolidated into a single district.

Despite the fact that Omaha could be one, consolidated school district to avoid racial segregation within the schools, the city of Omaha is divided up into 5 dist

ricts and Douglas County is divided up into 7.  While the City of Omaha has attempted to reduce the racial segregation amongst school districts, one tactic being bussing children to school districts outside of their school zone, they have failed to make substantial progress on the issue.  Ultimately, this leads one to believe that both the city and state government are not only allowing but causing racial tension while also perpetuating segregation by not making this issue a priority (Dillon, S).

Furthermore, discrimination against African Americans was also being carried out by the banking system through denying them business and home loans.  Not having access to loans meant that African American families could not invest in houses located in areas with better schools and could not build capital through opening business in a part of town with an established thriving market.  This perpetuated racial segregation in the city of Omaha and is responsible for the cities insufficient size of the African American middle class.

With racism being apparent in the cities government and business structure, African American families faced (and are still struggling with) their wealth determining the quality of school their children attend.  If schools are funded by property taxes, which are an extension of personal and communal wealth, and if people want to live in areas with decent schools for their kids, then people with wealth will move to specific areas, leaving a less wealthy area in the process.  This perpetuates inequality and, in Omaha, has a strong racial correlation  (GRACE).

With the continued use of Jim Crow era school districts, the racial segregation in Omaha seems to have worsened since desegregation with the opening of private and charter schools.  Just in the past 17 years, Omaha’s enrollment of Caucasian students has decreased from over half of the district’s population to less than 30%, while African American enrollment has stayed within a 5% difference (2016-17 OFFICIAL MEMBERSHIP OMAHA PUBLIC SCHOOLS).  This leaves children with families below the poverty line little to no choice in where they receive an education, whilst students from wealthier families have access to private, charter, and co-op schools.

This is specifically problematic for African American children in Omaha, with the city being ranked no. 1 in the nation with the most African American children living below the poverty line; this translates to 6 in 10 African American children living in poverty.  In addition, Omaha also has the second highest economic disparity between how African American and Caucasian resident’s fare  (GRACE).

Although the well being and education of all children should be a concern, African American children are less likely to graduate from public school than their Caucasian or Hispanic classmates and are also more likely to be living in poverty in the city of Omaha.  But what schools they can afford to attend and the racist history behind it isn’t the only issue for African American students in Omaha.  With underfunded special education programs and a growing student populace, African American students are disproportionately over-representing the special education program.



The study found that while demographics play a significant role in the enrolling of students into the special education program, the allocation of funds for the program is not as clear.  Funding from the IDEA Part B (Section 611) can be found on the Nebraska Department of Education website, but the allocation of funding is only shown at the district level.  This was problematic for the study when seeking information regarding the allocation of special education funding to each individual school.  Without knowing how much each school receives, it is difficult to determine if student demographics impact the allocation of resources.

The study examined maps of the Omaha area and compared the findings to demographics of each individual public high school in the Omaha district to determine the demographics of each zip code.  Information was then collected from the school district website to determine which schools possess each of the 8 special education programs provided by the district.  This strategy revealed that sections in the Omaha area that had a disproportionate representation of minority residents also had a higher demand for special education resources and programs.  Data from the school district website also revealed that these areas contained a notably high percentage of minority students enrolled in an Omaha Public School.  This revealed that the zip code the school is located in is directly related to the demand for special education resources.

The lack of information on what schools receive how much funding from IDEA part B is peculiar when considering a city as segregated as Omaha.  While the study found that demographics and special education are not mutually exclusive, it also raised questions on why that information is hidden and if it does in fact have a correlation with students within the districts.


Theme One: Sources of Special Education Funding

While the state and federal government, along with property taxes, fund public schools, special education funding comes from a different source.  The majority of special education funding in Nebraska derives from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B, Sections 611 and 619.  Being that section 619 is only allocated towards early childhood and ages 3-5 special education programs, the study focuses solely on section 611.  The data revealed that as the IDEA base rate, the Omaha Public School district received $4,130,556, and as the IDEA E/P funding, Omaha Public School district received $8,395,947.  These funds are allocated towards each section separately by the states congress.  While the data for how much the school district receives was available by the district, no inquiries were answered for the data by each individual school (ESTIMATED Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).


Without access to information regarding how much funding each individual school receives from the IDEA, the role that race plays in special education funding is not clear.  However, the study examined information regarding the probable demographics of the special education student body by evaluating the demographics of the school, the demand for special education programs in each school zone by calculating the number of programs for each zip code, and the graduation rates of each school zone to determine how successful the district’s special education programs are.  Being that the success of the schools with high demand for special education programs and whether they receive adequate funding is not mutually exclusive, these factors can be taken into account to determine the adequacy of the funding the district gets for the Special Education Program (ESTIMATED Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).


Theme Two: Demographics of the Omaha Public Schools District

The study examined data regarding the race and socioeconomic status of students in the district along with the demographics of the population of each school zone.  School zones are broken up into 7 categories that correspond with the high schools in the district.

The study found that families living below the poverty line were primarily located in school zones that were in central to northern Omaha, with Central and Benson having the highest percentages (Z).  School zones in southern Omaha were high as well, but not quite as high as schools in northern zones, with South being 10.2%.  Burke and Northwest had the lowest percentages of families living below the poverty line.

The study found that Cardinal directions of the city also coordinate with the race/ethnicity that it’s residents are likely to have.  For instance, South Omaha schools are predominately Hispanic, North Omaha is predominately African American, and Central to West Omaha is predominately Caucasian.

According to the Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) Report by Omaha Public Schools, the only data that can be used to determine the socioeconomic status of the student body is by studying free and reduced lunch reports.  This data revealed that African American and Hispanic students are more likely to be enrolled in the FRPL program, with 88.2% of Hispanic students, 85.7% of African American students, and 44.1% of Caucasian students receiving FRPL (DISTRICT FREE AND REDUCED-PRICE LUNCH).


While Northwest is located in a northern section of Omaha, the study assumes that the new development in housing, forming new suburban areas, is responsible for the low poverty rate in that surrounding zone.  With Northwest aside, the finding from this theme is conclusive with the idea that schools in poorer zones of the district are also predominantly non-white.  This finding presents information that segregation is not only apparent in the state of Nebraska, but within the district itself.

Benson and North have two of the highest percentages of African American students, while their school zones also have the highest percentages of families living below the poverty line.  When combining this information with the percentage of races enrolled in FRPL, the study concluded that this has much to do with the cities early formed segregated areas and poverty pockets that is still instilled in the city today.


Theme Three: Demographics of Nebraska School Districts

They study examined information from various secondary sources to compare each school district in regards to demographics.  The study compared racial composition, socioeconomic status, and size of the district to research how segregated the districts still are (O).

According to the data, Caucasian students make up most of the student body in all districts, but there is substantial difference in the number of African American and Hispanic students enrolled.  Omaha Public Schools has the highest enrollment for each race, being that it is the largest school district in the Omaha area.  The surrounding districts, on the other hand, are far less integrated as Omaha (Nebraska School District Demographic Profiles).

According to the U.S Census Bureau of 2009, Omaha Public School district had a population of 345,182.  In the district, 36,713 were Hispanic; 230,588 were Caucasian, and 52,144 were African American.  In a school district of 99,391 residents, African Americans were less than 1,500 of the total and Hispanics were 2,575 in Millard.  The numbers continue to drop with the remaining districts.  Bellevue is a district of 43,193, where there were less than 3,500 African American residents and 2,800 Hispanic residents.  Elkhorn, the smallest district out of the four used to compare, had 24,414 residents in the district.  Of the 24,414 residents in Elkhorn, 23,833 residents were Caucasian; 744 were Hispanic; and 229 were African American (Nebraska School District Demographic Profiles).


The data revealed that Omaha, while having a high enrollment of Caucasian students, is the most racially, economically, and socially diverse public school district when being compared to the 3 districts surrounding it.  This information reveals that Jim Crow era school districts are still being utilized effectively by the state to segregate schools by race.  While the state attempted bussing strategies in the early 2,000’s to widen student’s school options, this proved ineffective and expensive.  Progress since then has virtually halted and the idea of enforcing officially segregated school districts by race has been introduced, and turned down, to Nebraska legislation since.


Theme Four: Omaha Public Schools Special Education

While Information on special education data was not available at any of the school zones, Omaha Public Schools has programs found at each school in the district listed.  The study gathered each zip code found in each school zone using a map of the Omaha Public School district (Education in Omaha).  From there, data was gather to record how many special education programs are available in each zip code to determine which school zones have the highest demand for special education programs (Omaha, Nebraska Zip Code Map). The study found that Benson, Northwest, and North school zones all had the highest demand for special education programs:  Benson has 18 programs available, Northwest has 12, and North has 17.  The Bryan school zone has 4 programs available and the Burke school zone has 7 (Special Education Program Locations).



The study found that there is a correlation between the racial compositions in each school zone and the number of programs the zone offers.  The Benson school zone has the highest percentage of African American students while also offering the most special education programs.  Benson also has lowest graduation out of all of the school zones in the Omaha Public Schools district, 72%.  The Burke school zone, on the other hand, is more than half Caucasian, has a graduation rate of 87%, and only offers 7 programs (Dejka, J).

This data goes to confirm that along with the district is still being segregated; African American students are also more likely to be in special education programs.  The schools with the most African American students also have a lower graduation rate.  While the data covers two different categories, the study concluded that demand for special education and the demand for special education programs are not mutually exclusive.

According to the study, school zones with a high demand for special education programs are also more likely to have a lower graduation and higher population of African American or Hispanic students.  In addition, those schools also contain more students on the FRPL program.  Benson the third largest percent of non-white students, the lowest graduation rate, and the highest demand for special education programs.  In comparison, Burke has the lowest percentage of non-white students, the highest graduation rate, and is only second to last in the demand for special education.  This data confirms that non-white students are more likely to utilize special education, less likely to graduate, and more likely to be on FRPL (Dejka, J).


Theme Five: Special Education and Race

The data from previous themes confirms that there is a correlation between the high demand for special education and racial composition of the school zone and district.  While there is a high demand for special education in these areas, there are also lower graduation rates at the school zones corresponding high school.  This suggests that children of color are not only being placed in special education at a disproportionate rate and in poorer areas of the district and state, but that the system is failing to meet their needs to aid them in being successful after high school.

The finding from the study regarding the correlation of special education and race are consistent in previous studies, as well.  In a study conducted by John L. Hosp and Daniel J. Reschly, African Americans are disproportionately represented in special education programs (Hosp, J. L., & Reschly, D. J.).  In addition, a study conducted by Donald P. Oswald, Martha J. Coutinho, Al M. Best, and Nirbhay N. Singh revealed that African American students are also being falsely placed in special education programs (Oswald, D. P., Coutinho, M. J., Best, A. M., & Singh).  According to their study, congress found that the increasing levels of diverse backgrounds within public education are responsible for inappropriate identification of African American children with disabilities.  Congress went on to summarize the problems within special education, being; 1) disproportionate representation of children from diverse backgrounds in special education; 2) over identification of poor African American students as mentally retarded; 3) unacceptably high dropout rates for minority children in special education; and 4) lack of appropriate services to students of limited English proficiency (Oswald, D. P., Coutinho, M. J., Best, A. M., & Singh).


The correlation between low graduation rates, high percentages of African American students, and high demand for special education in particular school zones are consistent with the findings from these previously conducted studies.  The study found school zones in poorer areas of the district have a lower graduation rate and higher demand for special education services; coincidentally, these school zones also correspond with the theory that the district is still segregated.  The schools with the lowest graduation rates and highest demand for special education were in primarily African American or Hispanic dominated area.  This does not go to say that it is only Hispanic or African American students utilizing special education services, but that there seems to be a trend between race and the demand for these services, which could be due to falsely identifying children of color as mentally retarded.



While the information regarding special education funding could not be found at the school level, the study used alternative data to conduct for research. With this data, it was found that the city of Omaha is not one consolidated school district because it is continuing to use Jim Crow era district separation along with racial correlations that suggest racism within the state’s politics.  Secondary data was crossed with finding from scholarly journal articles to reveal that there was a high correlation between the race of students and the demand for special education, graduation rates, and economics of the school zone.  It was found that areas dominated with African American students, the top school zone being Benson, have the lowest graduation rates, highest demand for FRPL, lowest socioeconomic status, and highest demand for special education.  This finding was consistent with the opposite as well.  Burke, which is more than 50% Caucasian, had the highest graduation rates in the district, the lowest demand for FRPL, the second lowest percentage of families living below the poverty line, and one of the lowest demands for special education.

Although a few efforts have been made to relieve the racial tension amongst school districts, these efforts have ultimately failed and halted progress.  The racial history of Omaha and it’s school districts is not as widely known to some of it’s own populace, but the issues are still apparent.  Efforts to alleviate the disproportionate representation of African American students must first address the racism that plagued our nation and the effects this had on the school district design that is still utilized to this day.

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NE: Omaha Public Schools. doi:http://district.ops.org/Portals/0/RESEARCH/Docs/                       Statistical%20Reports/MembershipEthnicity/2016-17%20Official%20Fall                                 %20Membership.pdf


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