Nebraska Board of Ed roles targeted by four legislative proposals

By: - March 7, 2023 7:08 pm

State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston speaks about her proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the Nebraska Board of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Defenders of a separately elected Nebraska State Board of Education lined up Tuesday against four legislative proposals aimed at curbing the powers of an increasingly conservative State Board and handing them to the governor.

People wait to testify Tuesday to the Legislature’s Education Committee on four bills aimed at curbing the powers of the Nebraska Board of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Resolution 24CA, a constitutional amendment by State Sen. Joni Albrecht, would eliminate the State Board and place its current role steering state education standards under an education commissioner picked by the governor. The education commissioner is currently selected by the State Board. 

Albrecht, under questioning Tuesday from State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, acknowledged that she pursued the change because the State Board briefly considered adopting optional standards for teaching health and sex education in Nebraska’s K-12 schools.

“I would say that was definitely a motivator,” Albrecht told Conrad during the hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee. “I don’t know that they might not take it up again.”

Solution or overreaction?

Conrad said she considered the proposed state constitutional amendment an overreaction. She said lawmakers should not change the governance structure of K-12 education in Nebraska over a withdrawn idea that conservatives organized against and beat.

She pointed to last fall’s election results. A conservative slate of candidates campaigned against the health education standards and won three seats on the board. That, Conrad said, is the way the system is designed to work, for people to push for changes.

“I don’t think this is a measured response,” Conrad said after the hearing. “The proposals were meant to bring different sorts of accountability to the State Board … but they won.”

Albrecht questioned where the State Board thought it derived the authority to consider adopting health standards, because the state gives the board the authority to adopt state standards only in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies.

Supporters of new standards for health education have argued that because the standards would have been voluntary, not mandatory, that the State Board was not acting outside of its authority. Others, including Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, disagreed.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha (middle) listens to testimony against proposals to change the Nebraska Board of Education. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Linehan offered Legislative Bill 690 to clarify that the State Board cannot act outside of the Legislature’s prescribed roles for it and for the education commissioner. She said she’s tired of public confusion about who’s in charge of what in education.

The bill says “in no circumstance shall the State Board of Education assume authority over or direct the Commissioner of Education contrary to state law.” She and Albrecht said the Legislature needs input on important educational matters.

Constitutional amendments

Linehan also discussed two constitutional amendments she proposed. Legislative Resolution 28CA would eliminate the election of State Board members and let the governor appoint them for six-year terms. It would also drop the number of board members to seven from eight. Legislative Resolution 29CA would limit State Board members to serving two consecutive terms.

Like all states, Linehan said, Nebraska has underperforming schools, an achievement gap, the scattershot availability of dual-credit coursework and preparation of high school graduates for work or college. But Nebraska’s K-12 system today has a flow chart where nobody is in charge, she said. 

“The buck doesn’t stop anywhere here,” she said. “It just goes around in circles.”

People who prefer Nebraska’s decentralized approach to education, including Suzanne Kemp, a professor of practice of special education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said having an independent education  commissioner, picked by an independently elected State Board, helps keep the focus on education.

Kemp, who testified that she was representing the state’s education colleges, said many of the subtle language changes in some of the proposals under consideration risk laying the foundation to erode the independence of education leaders in the state. She said the people teaching educators see no need for the changes.

Several testifiers, including Jenni Benson of the Nebraska State Education Association, pointed to Nebraska’s top-15 national rankings in test scores and educational attainment as evidence that the proposals were “solutions in search of problems.” 

Stephanie Summers, a member of the school board in David City, Neb., testified that she prefers the people picking their educational representatives rather than ceding that role to the governor.

Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte, one of the new conservative members elected to the State Board, testified that the board is already changing for the better, thanks to voters, and that it does not need an overhaul by state lawmakers. 

What’s next

Gov. Jim Pillen, who would have an increased role in K-12 education under three of the four measures, has not taken a public position yet on any of the bills. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No one testified in support of any of the measures during Tuesday’s three-hour hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee, though some received letters of support. Albrecht said she wants voters to get a chance to weigh in.

Linehan said after the hearing that she hopes the Education Committee will discuss going deeper this summer on each of the proposals on the State Board to figure out the best structure for K-12 education moving forward. 

She said a state that spends $4.4 billion a year on K-12 education needs a structure that somebody can govern.

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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 worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.