A petition drive is underway that would give the governor substantial oversight of K-12 schools in Nebraska.
The sponsors aim to replace the Nebraska State Board of Education, education commissioner and Nebraska Department of Education with a new Office of Education accountable to the governor.
The governor would appoint the director of the office, subject to confirmation by a majority of state senators.
Kelli Brady, a sponsor of the petition, said the intent is to move “major functions” of the department to the new office and return some of the department’s responsibilities to local school boards.
“Give the power back to the people that are dealing directly with the children,” she said.
Critics, however, say that petition would have the opposite effect, eliminating an elected board and concentrating power in the Governor’s Office.
A rift grew this year between the board and the governor.
Board members this year faced a firestorm of opposition when they proposed new health education standards for Nebraska schools that incorporated teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts was vocal in his opposition to the sex ed topics in the standards. He also called for removing the 1619 Project and another curriculum resource, the Zinn Education Project, from a list of educational resources posted on the Nebraska Department of Education’s website.
Ricketts called the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project “revisionist history of the American founding” and tied it to critical race theory.
Maureen Nickels, president of the board, said that current government structure is working and that the change would cause “chaos” in the department.
“I think Nebraska really is in good hands with the way we have it,” she said.
Brady, who lives in Bellevue, and Michael Connely of York are listed on the initiative petition as sponsors. Connely is a Republican candidate for governor.
The changes would require a constitutional amendment.
Circulators have until July 7 to gather enough signatures to put the question on the November 2022 ballot — that’s about 125,000 signatures, according to the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.
They must gather signatures from 10% of registered voters by the due date. Signatures must be collected from 5% of the registered voters in 38 of the 93 Nebraska counties.
The current structure of the department, board and commissioner was established by an amendment in 1952.
Currently, the constitution provides that the department “shall have general supervision and administration of the school system of the state and such other activities as the Legislature may direct.”
The board, which is not paid, has eight members elected from eight districts across the state. Their duties and powers are “prescribed by the Legislature.” The board appoints the commissioner.
The board and commissioner oversee a variety of programs, including statewide academic standards and assessments, accountability, teacher certification and discipline, school accreditation, federal school aid and programs, career, technical and adult education, and vocational rehabilitation.
The department has 508 employees.
The board and department came under criticism this year over the attempt to write health education standards for Nebraska schools. After draft standards met overwhelming opposition, the board indefinitely postponed development Sept. 3.
Brady said the board tried to put comprehensive sex education in schools statewide even though state lawmakers had rejected previous attempts in the Legislature in 2011 and 2013.
“It’s been going on for 10 years that they’ve been trying to get this curriculum in, which they don’t need to do,” she said. “They don’t need to have it. All the local schools have to have their own, and they’ve done that.”
The board should be spending money on improving academics, she said.
Asked for comment, Ricketts issued a statement.
“The Nebraska Department of Education should respect that parents are the primary educators of their children, and the agency must continue to be accountable to the people of Nebraska,” Ricketts said. “Any changes to the structure of the department would need to be approved by voters through an amendment to the Nebraska State Constitution.”
Nickels said the proposal would put the Governor’s Office in charge of millions of federal dollars that come into the state for education.
Depending on who’s in charge, a lot of that money could end up going to private and parochial schools, she said.
Given the department’s spectrum of responsibilities, it wouldn’t be right to make such changes all because of the health standards controversy, she said.
“One topic, and you’re going to cause all kinds of chaos inside the department?” she said.
John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said he has not seen the petition, and his organization hasn’t taken a position on it.
He said his organization typically opposes measures that would centralize decision-making in the hands of fewer people in Lincoln.
“You’re putting a lot of faith in the executive branch to say, ‘We’re not going to make those decisions for you,’” he said.
Despite the criticism of the health education standards, the board held numerous meetings during which the public could weigh in, he said.
People should consider whether similar opportunities for input would be offered under the proposed structure, he said.
“We’ve got somewhat of a less centralized mechanism for making those decisions with the state board of education,” he said.
Jenni Benson, president of the state teachers union, said the proposal would “put total power in the hands of the governor.”
The current system empowers “citizens rather than politicians to choose who sets education policy,” she said.
That’s a right of voters that shouldn’t be taken away, she said.
In 2018, Sen. John Murante, who represented Gretna and western Sarpy County, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the board and bring the department under the governor. It failed to advance.
Across the country, states generally use a variation on three methods to select their commissioner of education, according to the Education Commission of the States.
In 16 states, the governor appoints and typically either the legislature or the state board confirms. Sometimes the state board recommends someone to the governor.
Twenty-one states, including Nebraska, give appointment power to the state board of education. In 12 states, commissioners are elected by voters.
In Oregon, the superintendent of public instruction is the governor.