Constitutional amendment would eliminate State Board of Education

Published: Jan. 16, 2023 at 11:41 AM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) -State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston on Friday proposed letting voters weigh in on a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the Nebraska State Board of Education and give the governor control over the state Department of Education.

This is at least the sixth time since the late 1980s that a similar measure has been brought forward. This year’s proposal would let the governor hire the education commissioner, who would assume the role currently filled by the state board.

If passed by both the Legislature and the state’s voters, the new language would essentially erase the State Board of Education’s role in setting or guiding K-12 education policy. Today, the board sets state academic standards in math, language arts, science and social studies.

Albrecht said she considers Legislative Resolution 24CA a “conversation starter” for lingering conservative frustrations about the Board of Education’s efforts in 2021 to consider new health education standards, including sex education. The board shelved consideration of the standards after public pushback.

Nebraska and Ohio are the only states without state health education standards.

Albrecht said she thinks the State Department of Education would be more responsive to lawmakers if its employees were under the governor’s purview. Currently, Nebraska voters in eight geographic districts select state board members.

“We are the Legislature,” Albrecht said. “We guide whether they can do what they did with … the health standards, and it’s absurd that it’s gone this far. But it only has because they didn’t have to answer to anybody. They have to answer to us, but they’re not answering us.”

The proposed health standards, which would have been optional for schools, drew the ire of some conservatives because the language offered public schools guidance about topics including how and when to address issues facing LGBTQ students.

Critics argued that the sex ed portion of the proposed standards offered too much information too soon. Defenders said they offered facts at age-appropriate times.

Conservative lawmakers have been discussing what changes they would like to see at the Department of Education. Some want the governor to appoint the board. Some want the board scrapped. Others want to cut the Department of Education’s budget.

The department had no immediate comment Friday about Albrecht’s proposal.

Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, who resigned this month, testified against a similar proposal in 2021 sponsored by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha. The board is in the process of hiring a new commissioner.

Blomstedt said dividing authority between an elected board and a commissioner hired by the board is more “stable” than relying on a governor to appoint the commissioner or the board.

“The state board overall is designed to provide for citizen voice in the work of the agency,” Blomstedt testified. “The board hires and evaluates the commissioner — me — allowing a regional and statewide perspective on the complexities of a state education agency.”

Linehan testified last year that most Nebraskans don’t know who represents them on the state board and that they would know how to contact the governor if they had problems with department proposals.

She said Friday that most states put their education departments under the governor’s control, and there’s no reason Nebraska shouldn’t do the same.

Kirk Penner of Aurora, elected to the board in November after former Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed him in December 2021, said he was traveling and would need time to review the proposal.

“There are many different ways that states appoint or elect state boards of education and their commissioner,” he said. “A hybrid approach is used by many. I am open to listen to any of the bills being introduced, and then I can form my opinion on that specific bill.”

Deb Neary of Omaha, a Democrat who won the board’s most contentious race in November, said people should pay attention “any time political leaders want to take away accountability, transparency, representation and parental input.”

She said Nebraska’s unique educational structure has allowed for a strong education system. She said the board system, with members elected to represent different parts of the state, helps address the challenges facing students no matter where or how they live.

“The size of our state brings unique challenges that require elected representatives from all areas of the state to ensure student success for every youth,” she said.

Neary’s race was at the heart of the public pushback against the board in last year’s elections, which saw six-figure fundraising by each candidate. Neary faced criticism from conservative Marni Hodgen about her public statements and emails about the proposed standards.

Neary has said she did not write the standards or vote to approve them, but she did send an email expressing disappointment that the new standards, if adopted, would be voluntary. She has said she would not apologize for wanting to treat all students with respect.

Hodgen said Neary was more supportive of the standards than she said publicly.

Karen Kilgarin, spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Education Association, said the teachers union supported an elected board. She said nonpartisan elections help shield schools from partisan politics and let board members act independently.

“The elective process is more democratic and prompts citizens to take a greater interest in their schools,” she said, adding that board members eventually build expertise that a governor would lack.

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