State Board of Ed races could decide future role of board, next Ed Commissioner

By: - November 5, 2022 12:17 am

(Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A group of conservative Nebraska State Board of Education candidates has spent months stoking public fears about sex education and social studies.

In doing so, they turned up the volume on four typically quiet races reaching the ballot box Tuesday. Their push is part of Republican efforts nationally and locally to boost turnout by right-leaning parents.

Similar efforts to fire up parents helped Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his state GOP make gains in a purple state, which, until 2021, had been trending toward Democrats.

In red Nebraska, conservatives hope a similar approach steers right the eight-member board that sets state K-12 academic standards in math, language arts, science and social studies. 

Where the board stands

Conservatives said they see the current board stacking 7-1 or 6-2 against them. Several said their goal is to get to 4-4, to force compromise and, eventually win control of the board.

“I don’t see it as pushing to the right,” said Matt Innis, a conservative activist who has argued that the State Board does not reflect the political will of Nebraskans. “I see it as bringing common sense.”

Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb described the conservative bloc as “extreme” and said the races are unlike anything the state has seen.

On one side, four candidates have campaigned like a right-wing slate: Marni Hodgen of Omaha, Kirk Penner of Aurora, Sherry Jones of Grand Island and Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte.

Their four opponents are running as a mixed bag: Democrats Deb Neary of Omaha and Danielle Helzer of Grand Island, nonpartisan Helen Raikes of Ashland and Republican Robin Stevens of Gothenburg.

The Omaha-area race has been one of the state’s nastiest this year, with supporters and opponents of Hodgen and Neary trading ads and social media posts. 

One side alleges lies. The other, political extremism.

Education issues

Educational issues are being discussed in all four State Board races, too, if voters can cut through fights over critical race theory, Christian nationalism, grooming, the threat of fascism and health standards.

Marni Hodgen

Penner said the conservatives want to focus on core education — math, English and science. “A lot of us don’t want these ancillary concepts like choosing your gender brought into the classroom,” he said.

At various events around the state, slate members have criticized the decline in state test scores as evidence that the Department of Education has focused on the wrong things.

“I feel like we’ve gotten into this very complacent role in our society where we’re settling for mediocre,” Hodgen said, criticizing Neary for saying at a Millard Business Association event that test scores tell people nothing about student achievement.

Neary, Raikes and Stevens have defended the state’s test scores as part of a national trend toward lower scores overall and said Nebraska’s public schools are faring better by comparison than schools in other states.

 “Nebraska’s public schools are in the top 10 in the country, no matter what,” said Neary, a retired nonprofit executive. “You look at them in the ACTs, and you do the comparables, or in the national report card.”

Deb Neary

One area of agreement between the candidates on and off the slate has been the need to focus more board attention and state money on education in the trades and technical fields. 

Another has been the need to help school districts hire and retain more teachers and paraeducators. Penner, Hodgen, Raikes and Neary said they would work with other levels of government on solutions.

Each offered their own ideas on potential financial incentives and possible changes to licensing requirements for teachers to simplify and speed up hiring.

Slate candidates argued that paring back state requirements and recommendations to core subjects would help retain teachers. Opponents said making teachers feel appreciated again would help, as would better pay.

“I want Nebraskans to remember who they are,” Raikes said. “Nebraskans are not these angry, hate their schools, tear them down (people). We are nonpartisan, respectful and independent. We do things our own way.”

Health ed standards

Penner and Co. spent much of the campaign criticizing the State Board for considering proposed health standards that would have advised Nebraska schools on how and when to address issues facing LGBTQ students.

They targeted Neary and the Omaha-area race with most of their ire, pointing to emails and messages that they say show she’s more sympathetic to the brief push for health standards than she says publicly. 

Neary said she would not apologize for being supportive of treating all students with respect. She said she recommended that the board rely on experts she knew from Omaha, but that they did not.

She reiterated that she did not write the proposed health education standards or vote to advance them. In an email, however, she did express disappointment that the standards would be voluntary if passed.

The first draft of the proposed standards was written by teachers from across the state, Neary said, without board involvement or input. 

Nebraska remains one of only two states without K-12 health education standards.

Hodgen, a massage therapist who said she started homeschooling her kids, in part, to avoid mandatory masking during COVID-19, said her biggest issue with the proposed health standards was how kids as young as third grade were set to learn about puberty.

That, and she questioned why the board considered going beyond its statutory authority to offer recommendations on health education standards at all.

“I didn’t understand why there was this need to have kids not only talk about puberty in third grade, but to have to be able to define what sexual orientation means,” she said. 

Penner said he didn’t want boys in his daughter’s school bathrooms or locker rooms. School officials have said nurses and staff make accommodations for transgendered students already.

‘Mind Polluters’

Slate members also helped host screenings of the movie “Mind Polluters,” which alleges a discredited conspiracy theory that teachers are organizing to indoctrinate or “groom” kids with left-wing politics and sexual ideas.

Former Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed criticized the four candidates for “demonizing” teachers during a teacher shortage. LGBTQ advocates have said that their rhetoric risks alienating vulnerable kids.  

Breed said he hopes Nebraska voters see the organized effort for what it is, “a narrow, high-money-backed agenda that is not necessarily for the best in public education in Nebraska.”

Penner, a former Aurora school board member who Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed to the State Board, disagreed, saying most Nebraskans support a more conservative approach to education.

The role of money

He said he wants to work on making sure state aid to education is fairer to rural schools that don’t get state funding today and that special education funding meets what districts have been promised. 

Raikes and Neary said they want to work with the Legislature to make sure changes to state aid add to state funding for schools and don’t punish districts that educate more students in poverty.

Political observers said the amount of money that private donors and unions are spending on the State Board races is part of a wider skirmish between school choice advocates and the people who support public schools.

Members of the slate have said publicly that they would support school choice, though they have yet to define what that means to them. Their opponents have argued Nebraskans already have a choice of public schools.

Republicans, Democrats and nonpartisans running for the board this fall had each raised at least $30,000, which used to be the high-water mark for any State Board races outside of the Omaha area.

Ricketts and Tom Peed of Sandhills Publishing are two of the high-profile backers of GOP slate candidates. Ricketts has expressed support for charter schools and voucher programs.

The Nebraska State Education Association and donors including University of Nebraska Regent Barbara Weitz are among the major supporters of their opponents. They back public funds for public schools.

“Right now we’re at a tipping point, and I believe there’s a lot at stake,” Neary said. “Our public schools could potentially be gutted because of some policy matters that some candidates are advocating for.”

The future

The board has a big job ahead, replacing retiring Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt. The makeup of the board, how divided it is or not, could affect the caliber of candidate who applies, Breed said.

Supporters on both sides questioned whether the candidates could come back together to hire a commissioner, oversee state testing and steer what kids are taught.

The candidates remained miles apart.

“Most (of the slate candidates) want or try to be for vouchers and they’re trying to make the schools look very weak and incompetent right now,” Raikes said. “And it’s baloney.”

Said Penner: “Public schools are not the place to teach social or political ideology. It is to teach kids the core standards, reading, writing, mathematics and science.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story confused two similarly named political action committees when identifying a high-profile supporter of the GOP slate of candidates. 

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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