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Omaha Magazine

Lauren Micek Vargas: Championing Education Access and Equity in Nebraska

Mar 21, 2024 01:25PM ● By Natalie Veloso
Lauren Micek Vargas Championing Education Access and Equity in Nebraska Education Rights Counsel b2b april may 2024

Lauren Micek Vargas

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

There are stories about education that resonate long after the school bell rings—among these is the work of Lauren Micek Vargas. Vargas has left a mark on countless student journeys and now makes a difference in Omaha as an attorney and the co-founder, executive director, and CEO of the Education Rights Counsel (ERC).

Vargas’ advocacy began in 2007 when she joined Teach for America, an AmeriCorps program that placed her in a sixth-grade special education classroom in the Bronx, New York. Among her many students was Barbara, a bright soul with a physical disability. Vargas took on the responsibility to secure her a better educational setting. It became apparent that many more students, particularly kids of color living in poverty, were facing educational barriers without receiving services they required.

“When teachers requested a better-suited curriculum, they would get shut down,” Vargas recalled. “At one point, I was told, ‘Listen, you don’t know the law.’ I thought, ‘Okay, then I’m going to learn the law.’” Returning to Nebraska, she attended Creighton University School of Law. An internship led her to become an Assistant Public Defender, and it was here that she observed the grim reality of the school-to-prison pipeline, primarily affecting brown and black children.

“Truancy is a perfect example,” Vargas shared. “Kids who don’t go to school for 20 or more days can be referred to the county attorney’s office; predominantly, these are kids of color, especially boys.” With co-founder Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda, Vargas established Education Rights Counsel in 2017 to dismantle these barriers. ERC provides additional resources for practicing attorneys, offering support to those navigating education law.

One notable initiative is ERC’s involvement in juvenile courts, addressing the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track and advocating for disabled children. These efforts were recognized by the Nebraska State Bar Association with the Award of Special Merit in 2022.

Vargas credits her team for these accomplishments, including Eynon-Kokrda, who has more than 20 years of education law experience. Initially her mentor, Eynon-Kokrda became a close friend as they merged their expertise to establish ERC together.

“We are a yin and a yang,” Eynon-Kokrda said. “I’ve had experience in education law; Lauren has experience with a master’s in special education and as a public defender working with children.
“I know what schools think and how they see it. She knows what families think and how they see it. We both realize there are many people who don’t see any of this.”

Last year, ERC trained over 2,600 people across Nebraska and offered insights to attorneys, probation officers, DHHS workers, and beyond. ERC’s goal is to build an alliance of education advocates for Nebraska’s future, Vargas said. “The students we’re assisting likely aren’t part of the wave of young people leaving the state; they’re going to remain in our state and be part of this workforce.”

What keeps Vargas in Nebraska is the combination of opportunity and a supportive community, she explained. She values the state’s philanthropic environment where ideas are heard and her work is meaningful. “Lauren’s drive and passion are the most critical elements to being successful in what we do,” Eynon-Kokrda added. “She has an intense sense of justice—an organization is only as strong as its core essence.” At 38 with two children of her own, Vargas reflects on her first teaching job. Her passion is fueled by success stories like that of her former student, Barbara. Now a Penn graduate headed to New York University to become a school psychologist, Barbara reconnected with Vargas through social media to share her accomplishments.

It’s in moments like these that Vargas sees the tangible results of her dedication—a reminder that education advocacy isn’t just about laws; it’s about impacting the lives of students.

“I’m so grateful that I have this job, that people believe in this mission, and that families see its importance. We’ll continue this work until we see educational equity across the nation.”

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This article originally appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe. 

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