LINCOLN–Voters could choose to eliminate the Nebraska State Board of Education and consolidate the governor’s authority over the State Department of Education under a proposed constitutional amendment before lawmakers.
If approved by voters, Legislative Resolution 285CA, would remove the eight-member body from the department and make the Commissioner of Education an appointee of the governor.
The bill, introduced by Sen. John Murante of Gretna, also would give the governor authority to direct the Education Commissioner regarding financial priorities and funds distribution–decisions currently made by the board.
“The State Board of Education has clearly lost its way,” Murante said. “It’s clearly out of touch with the people of Nebraska.”
He said the board has become increasingly politicized in recent years and is a cause for concern.
“Embracing things like Common Core and coming out against school choice is a radical fringe [and] extreme position to take,” Murante said. “I believe the Department of Education should be focused on educating kids and conducting themselves in an efficient manner.”
Common Core is a national set of grade-level educational standards for teaching math and English that has been controversial in some places.
Eliminating the board and giving the governor authority would remove politics and partisanship from the department and would allow citizens a greater ability to communicate directly with the governor on policy, he said.
“The governor represents all 1.9 million Nebraskans and the people will have an opportunity to voice their concerns to whomever the governor may be,” Murante said.
Critics of the bill, however, see it as making education matters more, not less, partisan.
Jenni Benson, Nebraska State Education Association president representing 28,000 teachers, opposes LR 285CA and the rationale behind it.
“We are one of very, very few states that does not embrace Common Core,” she said by phone, of the state’s education system. “We pride ourselves at looking at what’s best for Nebraska and its students.”
Benson, who has 30 years of teaching experience, said Nebraska is one of four states that never adopted Common Core standards but instead established its own statewide standards and testing.
She also disagreed that the bill would eliminate partisanship, but would instead inject partisanship and politics into the system by tying the department to the governorship. Priorities of the department could change with administrations, and that could be disruptive to students overall, she said.
Maureen Nickels, board member representing the 21 counties in central Nebraska’s District 6, echoed that sentiment.
“If we were to take the board away, and send authority to the governor, we could end up with the commissioner changing every four years,” she said by phone. “Education would sway with the political ideology of the governor who is in charge, [and] in my opinion that is not the direction Nebraska wants or needs to go.”
Nickels said Nebraska’s board, when compared to other states, is a nonpartisan, democratically elected body that’s typically comprised of educators. She stressed that board members are directly responsible to their constituents and work closely with local school boards.
“We are a state that truly believes in local control,” she said. “If that bill were to pass, all local control is taken away, and that is a huge concern for me [as] an educator.”
Education Committee member Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln also opposes the bill.
“There is no reason or rationale to eliminate the current board of education,” he said by email. He said that board members are efficient, effective and comprise a body representative of the state, and “just because Sen. Murante does not agree with all of their decisions does not mean they are politicized.”
Benson said she doesn’t think the bill will advance past committee because she said Nebraskans like to elect their representation in the government.
“Elected officials are held accountable to the citizens,” she said. “If we eliminate the board, where will the public voice be; how would anybody have input in the process?”