Nebraska lawmaker brings thinner, updated proposal for K-12 school transparency

Education Committee Chair Dave Murman has worked to expand parental rights in education; school board members say they prefer another senator’s bill

By: - February 6, 2024 11:28 am

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, right, speaks with State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. Dec. 7, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — After trying in 2023 for a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” in public K-12 schools, Nebraska’s Education Committee chair returned this year with a thinner proposal on content, libraries and more.

Glenvil State Sen. Dave Murman, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, answers questions from a fellow committee member during a July 31, 2023, hearing. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil tried to pass Legislative Bill 374, the “Parents’ Bill of Rights and Academic Transparency Act,” last year and came back this year with LB 1399. He told the Education Committee that while his previous bill received “great support,” some teachers and school officials were concerned it “may be a bit too burdensome on their part.”

“Teaching is already a difficult profession,” Murman testified. “I’ve tried to put in the work to find some more reasonable compromises.”

LB 1399 would:

  • Set a time frame for which parents may obtain instructional or training materials upon request (10 business days).
  • Clarify how curriculum materials, activities, surveys and more are approved, how parents may attend during the school day and how they may excuse their student from content.
  • Maintain an online database of library books available for checkout and allow parents to opt in for an email notification detailing what their student checks out.
  • Requiring that schools wishing to administer surveys to students must obtain parental consent and allow parents to see their students’ results.

‘Fullest transparency allowed’

The bill would also update a 1994 law on parental involvement, Murman said, requiring schools to foster and facilitate the “fullest transparency allowed by law,” instead of merely “informing” parents or guardians.

“Parental involvement and transparency were important goals 30 years ago,” Murman said. “What I hope to do with LB 1399 is not to alter that goal but instead provide a more reasonable framework to be put in place to make sure the goal of the original 1994 law is really working.”

Allie French, a 2024 legislative candidate endorsed by the new leadership of the NEGOP, said she was testifying for Nebraskans Against Government Overreach, in support of the bill. She said members have requested records and gotten a nebulous time frame for when they will receive them, and LB 1399 would clarify those steps and the chain of command.

However, French expressed concern the bill would not take effect until July 1, 2025, if passed, which Murman said is to allow schools more time to implement the law.

School boards in opposition

Murman said LB 1399 comes after working with the Nebraska Association of School Boards and local school board members — specifically from Central City, Kearney, DC West and Plattsmouth — but he understood they were not yet on board. They were the first to testify in opposition.

Jeremy Shuey, a school board member in Plattsmouth, testified on behalf of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. He said the association’s preference is a separate measure: LB 71 from State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue.

State Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue, a member of the Education Committee. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LB 71, which seven of eight committee members voted to advance, including Murman, has not yet been scheduled for floor debate. It does not address surveys or libraries.

Shuey said LB 1399 could be complicated to implement, such as when training materials for teachers are owned by third parties, because they might run into copyright or trademark constraints. He also raised concerns about the phrase “will accommodate” regarding parents or guardians who want to attend school activities.

“We must safeguard the authority of districts to manage their classrooms efficiently,” Shuey said. “This could cause significant disruption without common sense boundaries.”

Kyle McGowan told the committee that LB 71 is the favorable path forward on behalf of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, Nebraska State Education Association, Greater Nebraska Schools Association, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, Schools Taking Action for Nebraska Childrens’ Education and Stand For Schools.

Library book challenges

Shuey took aim at a specific provision of LB 1399 requiring school boards to allow any parent or guardian to provide a five-minute presentation of a library book or material in the possession of their child’s school district.

Under an amendment distributed during the hearing, this presentation would coincide with a school board meeting and appears to be separate from a board’s public comment section.

Murman said LB 1399 does not ban any book but allows parents to speak on what they find objectionable and ensures their concerns are heard. Last summer, he held an interim study on similar topics that delved into conversations on whether there was “porn” in school libraries.

During the 2022–23 school year, book bans occurred in 153 districts across 33 states, according to a PEN America report. (Getty Images)

Vicki Wood of the Nebraska Library Association said Murman’s bill seeks to capitalize on “shock value” that has defined book challenges nationwide, often going viral for a short passage.

“This technique has been effective in some settings, but most adults realize that one sexual thing does not pornography or obscenity make, in the legal sense or in common sense,” Wood said.

In 2023, Shuey noted, first-year Plattsmouth school board member Terri Cunningham-Swanson challenged 52 books. The board voted 7-1 (with Cunningham-Swanson in opposition) to retain 51 of the books, a microcosm as such challenges have skyrocketed nationwide in recent years.

If LB 1399 had been law, Shuey said, the school board would have heard five-minute presentations for over four hours.

In January, voters removed Cunningham-Swanson from the school board in a recall election.  

Survey privacy

Others took aim at Murman’s provision to allow parents to see their children’s survey results which Murman said is in response to surveys about “extremely private topics,” including sexuality, sexual behaviors, race or ethnicity and religion.

Erin Feichtinger, policy director for the Women’s Fund, said allowing parents to see the results would be dangerous and unnecessary, as they can exempt their children already.

She pointed to 2021 state data that 91.5% of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases were perpetrated by relatives or family members. 

Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska, said that “in a perfect world,” every child would feel safe and supported in talking with their parents. However, even well-meaning surveys under LB 1399 could result in danger as some students are not in those safe environments.

“It is heartbreaking to receive calls when young people are forced out of their homes,” Swatsworth said. “I’ve received far too many of these calls to discount the real danger posed by efforts like LB 1399.”

Murman said he understands LB 1399 faced opposition, including from those he worked with, but believed it had a future.

“I do think with continued conversations, we could find a path forward,” he said.

The Education Committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.

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