Nebraska State Board of Directors Targeted by Four Legislative Proposals

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN. Defenders of the separately elected Nebraska State Board of Education on Tuesday opposed four legislative proposals aimed at limiting the powers of the increasingly conservative State Board and transferring them to the governor.

People are waiting Tuesday to testify before the Legislative Assembly Committee on Education on four bills designed to limit the powers of the Nebraska Board of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Resolution 24CA, a constitutional amendment introduced by Senator Johny Albrecht, would abolish the State Council and transfer its current role in managing the state’s educational standards to an education commissioner chosen by the governor. The Commissioner for Education is currently elected by the Council of State.

Albrecht, questioned Tuesday by Senator Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, admitted she pushed for the change because the State Council briefly considered adopting additional standards for teaching health and sex education in Nebraska’s K-12 schools.

“I would say it was definitely a motivator,” Albrecht told Konrad during a hearing before the Legislative Assembly Committee on Education. “I don’t know they might not take it up again.”

Decision or overreaction?

Conrad said she considered the proposed state constitutional amendment an overreaction. She said legislators should not change the governing structure of Nebraska’s K-12 education because of a withdrawn idea that conservatives organized against and won.

She pointed to the election results last fall. The conservative slate campaigned against health education standards and won three board seats. According to Conrad, the system is designed to work for people to push for change.

“I don’t think that’s a balanced answer,” Konrad said after the hearing. “The proposals were intended to bring various kinds of responsibility to the Council of State… but they won.”

Albrecht asked how the Council of State thought he had the right to consider the adoption of health standards, because the state gives the council the right to adopt state standards only in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies.

Proponents of the new health education standards argued that since the standards would have been voluntary rather than mandatory, the State Council did not act outside of its mandate. Others, including Senator Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, disagreed.

Senator Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha (center) hears evidence against proposals to change the Nebraska Board of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Linehan proposed Bill 690 to clarify that the Council of State could not act outside of the Legislative Assembly’s prescribed roles for it and the Commissioner of Education. She said she was tired of the public confusion about who is responsible for what in education.

The bill states that “under no circumstances shall the State Board of Education assume the authority or appoint a Commissioner of Education contrary to the laws of the State.” She and Albrecht said the Legislative Assembly needed input on important educational issues.

Constitutional amendments

Linehan also discussed two of her proposed constitutional amendments. Legislative Resolution 28CA abolishes the election of members of the Council of State and allows the governor to appoint them to six-year terms. It will also reduce the number of board members from eight to seven. Legislative Resolution 29CA will limit the term of office of members of the State Council to two consecutive terms.

Like all states, Linehan said, Nebraska has underperforming schools, a performance gap, disparate availability of dual-credit coursework, and preparing high school graduates for work or college. But today, the K-12 system in Nebraska has a flowchart where no one answers, she said.

“The dollar doesn’t stop anywhere here,” she said. “It just goes in circles.”

People who prefer Nebraska’s decentralized approach to education, including Suzanne Kemp, professor of special education practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, say having an independent education commissioner elected by an independently elected state board helps focus on education.

Kemp, who testified that she represented the state’s educational colleges, said the many subtle language changes in some of the proposals under consideration risk laying the groundwork for undermining the independence of education leaders in the state. She said the people who train educators don’t see the need for change.

Several witnesses, including Jenny Benson of the Nebraska Educational Association, cited Nebraska’s top 15 national rankings for test scores and educational attainment as evidence that the proposals were “solutions in search of problems”.

Stephanie Summers, a school board member in David City, Nebraska, said she prefers people choose their education representatives rather than cede that role to the governor.

Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte, one of the new conservative members elected to the state council, said the council is already changing for the better thanks to voters and does not need a major overhaul by state legislators.

What’s next

Gov. Jim Pillen, who will play a larger role in K-12 formation under three of the four measures, has yet to take a public stance on any of the bills. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No one testified in support of any measure during Tuesday’s three-hour hearing before the Legislative Assembly’s education committee, although some received letters of support. Albrecht said she wants voters to have a say.

Linehan said after the hearing that she hopes the Education Committee will discuss each of the State Council’s proposals in more detail this summer to determine the best structure for continuing K-12 education.

She said a state that spends $4.4 billion a year on K-12 education needs a structure that someone can manage.

The Nebraska Examiner is part of Newsroom States, a network of newsrooms supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. For questions, please contact editor Keith Folsom: [email protected] Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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