Three weeks before an election in which concerns about education could motivate Republican turnout, five conservative state senators called Monday for a legislative investigation into the Nebraska Department of Education.
The senators said one of their staffers found a link in June to a New York University center for culturally responsive education on “Launch Nebraska,” a state Department of Education website built for schools reopening during the pandemic. Two or three clicks into the NYU website, they found a document defending critical race theory and discussing racial justice.
State Sens. Dave Murman of Glenvil, Steve Erdman of Bayard, Robert Clements of Elmwood, Steve Halloran of Hastings and Myron Dorn of Adams said they want the Legislature’s Education Committee to investigate who shared the link and what else was shared. They also said they want to know who might have promoted a new sex education curriculum.
“After a year of operation, ‘Launch Nebraska’ posted left-wing agenda items completely foreign to Nebraska public schools before the pandemic…,” Murman said. “Now we’ve uncovered documents that show unequivocally, unequivocally that the department has also been promoting critical race theory.”
Erdman said the department needs to be reined in.
Nebraska Department of Education spokesman David Jespersen said the agency removed the link to the NYU center back in June, after Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office raised concerns about material found elsewhere on the NYU site. Jespersen said the department found no evidence that teachers or schools used the documents.
He said the department “looked into” the governor’s concerns “and we agreed.” Governor’s Office spokeswoman Alex Reuss on Monday confirmed the summer conversation.
“Yes that’s true,” Reuss said. “When the Governor’s Office became aware of the information contained on the site that link led to, we contacted the Commissioner to let him know. From there, it appears they removed that link as a resource.”
The timing of the push for an investigation fits a nationally and locally organized GOP political effort to energize conservative parents. Much of the effort is modeled after the purple-state success of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, whose 2021 campaign rode similar questions about education to victory.
Critical race theorists essentially believe that race in America must be viewed through a lens that is conscious of color, not blind to it. Academics have described it as a way of analyzing, explaining and realistically addressing the persistence of racism in economic, social and governmental structures.
Politicians nationally have expanded that definition to include efforts to teach the evils of racism and how to push back against it — what the K-12 world calls anti-racism.
Murman, when asked by reporters why the senators waited four months to call for an investigation instead of doing so before the school year started, said they needed more time. He later acknowledged that a call for an investigation could potentially affect State Board of Education races this November.
Murman said if an investigation is held, he did not it to begin any sooner than the next legislative session in January. Murman, Erdman, Clements and Halloran did not contact the state Education Department before calling for the investigation, officials confirmed.
Murman called the chair of the Education Committee, State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, 10 minutes before Monday’s press conference, she said, days after senators first discussed the potential investigation with The Daily Caller, a political website founded by conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson.
Walz, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said she was frustrated that senators, including some like Murman on her committee, are wasting time on made-up issues instead of working to address learning loss and making sure schools are meeting the future workforce needs of businesses.
“You would think if there was a serious concern that they would bring this to me,” Walz said of the call for an investigation. “I had to find out on social media. I do understand that we are three weeks out from a really contentious election.”
Jespersen, speaking for the Education Department, said the Nebraska website link, which was up for months, provided “a resource for teachers as they were getting back into the classroom to be able to look through a lens of their students,” because COVID-19 affected different populations differently.
Communities of color in Nebraska and nationally saw higher rates of death and serious injury from COVID-19, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The department has been inundated with public records requests since critical race theory and sex education became divisive political issues. He had no ballpark estimate but said the number had increased “exponentially.” He said the department welcomes public input on links and sources it shares.
“We do try to vet all the sources that we provide on our website,” Jespersen said. “But the nature of the internet is the farther that you click, the farther away from the source that was originally intended that you’re going to get.”
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