The Nebraska Department of Education and the State Board of Education have been the subject of public concern for a draft of new health education standards for instruction in Nebraska’s public schools. This concern has now apparently resulted in a petition being circulated to amend the state constitution to eliminate the Department of Education and the State Board of Education.
I can understand the concern about these standards, and, as a former member of the state board, I believe the board was derelict in not performing its duty in this case. A fundamental duty of the board is to establish standards for instruction for Nebraska’s public schools, a duty which requires diligent review and analysis of the appropriateness of proposed standards.
When I served on the state board, we saw it as our duty to spend hours reviewing standards proposed by the department and evaluate them based on our understanding of what would be appropriate to be taught at a certain grade level and our own common sense.
This board failed in that duty.
The board was created by the Nebraska Constitution as a recognition of the importance of public education and to provide a body of citizens, elected by their peers, to oversee public education and to ensure that the state’s schools reflected the values of the people. The outcry over some parts of the standards shows that these standards do not reflect the view of many if not most Nebraskans.
But this failure does not justify eliminating the board and does not change the rationale for creating the board. Having a publicly elected board is consistent with the long-held belief, recognized in the State Constitution, that, in the interest of accountability and greater control by the people, the power of the state ought not to be concentrated in a few state officials.
In addition to the State Board of Education, we see this in the governance of the University of Nebraska, natural resources districts, public power and utility districts, community colleges and local school districts, all of which are governed by a publicly elected board.
To now eliminate the State Board of Education may satisfy a temporary dissatisfaction with the board but will have long-term consequences by eliminating a governing body with the sole responsibility of representing the public in the governance of their schools.