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Is the Nebraska state education board worth keeping? Lawmakers, public split at hearing

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Who’s more responsive to Nebraskans: The governor or the Nebraska State Board of Education?

State lawmakers differed on that question Tuesday as they took testimony on a proposed constitutional amendment that would significantly change oversight of public schools.

The amendment, proposed by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, would eliminate the elected state board and make the education commissioner and Department of Education accountable to the governor.

Linehan, whose district includes Waterloo and Elkhorn, said the department should be set up like Health and Human Services or the State Patrol.

The commissioner would be appointed by, and work for, the governor instead of a board the public knows little about, she said.

“So when people are mad, they can hold a governor accountable because they do know who the governor is,” she said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, an Education Committee member, said the change could lead to instability in education policy.

“What worries me is you start electing different governors, and so every four years or every eight years, you could have a totally different vision of what our education system’s going to look like,” Pansing Brooks said.

Another committee member, Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, said he had a hard time believing that the governor would be more accountable to the people than the board.

“I think a lot of people I talk to in my district feel completely powerless when trying to advocate with the governor’s office as opposed to their state board of education,” Morfeld said.

Nebraska is one of six states where the state education board is elected and the board appoints the commissioner, according to a 2021 report by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

In more than two-thirds of states, the governor appoints all or some of the members of the state education board, the association says.

About a third of the state governors appoint the commissioner.

In Nebraska, the board’s duties include approving academic standards in core subjects, implementing academic testing and the state’s accountability system, ensuring schools are accredited and that teachers are certified. The board also has a quasi-judicial role in disciplining teachers.

The department has more than 500 employees.

Members of the education board operated with a low profile in recent years until last year’s contentious fight over health-education standards.

The board proposed, then indefinitely postponed, adoption of a set of inclusive standards that riled many conservatives for including teaching students as young as first grade about gender identity and sexual orientation.

Linehan said concerns over health standards and critical race theory didn’t motivate her to propose LR 278CA.

She said there are too many elected bodies that are overseeing public education, from local boards and Educational Service Unit boards to the state education board, Legislature and the governor.

“We’re not as coordinated as we need to be,” Linehan said.

Laura Rauscher testified in favor of the change, saying “we aren’t being listened to by the state board at all.”

“We have no control whatsoever on what our children are going to see, going to hear, in our public school system,” she said.

Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska, a statewide nonprofit advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Nebraskans, said more people supported the standards than it appeared.

“While it seems there’s a huge disconnect, I think that disconnect is somewhat smaller than it appears from a vocal minority,” she said.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt spoke against the amendment.

An elected board with an appointed commissioner makes for more stable oversight, he said.

When the state first faced the pandemic, Blomstedt said, he worked closely with both the governor and the board.

Although people criticize the board for the health standards, he said, “The board was responsive to public input.”

Dave Welsch, a school board member for Milford Public Schools, testified on behalf of multiple statewide public education groups opposed to the measure.

“Public education should not be about one person’s political agenda,” Welsch said. “Rather it should be governed by an independently elected, nonpartisan body.”

Linehan, however, said the education board is “inherently political.”

State board members should be working on raising academic achievement and addressing the teacher shortage, she said.

The effort to raise achievement “ needs to be a very determined effort, led by somebody with the strength of the governor behind him,” she said.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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