Nebraska conservatives set sights on education takeover
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska would use taxpayer money to fund private school vouchers, make it easier to remove books from school libraries, target transgender students and give the state's newly elected conservative governor more control over education policy under bills being considered in the Legislature.
Other states have made similar moves, but the Nebraska effort is remarkably wide-ranging, with the potential to permanently alter the fundamentals of education in the state's 244 school districts.
Gov. Jim Pillen has touted the wholesale overhaul of the state's education system as one of his top priorities, often repeating that “Nebraska will never, ever give up on a single kid.”
“Our highest priority is to protect our kids and their adolescent minds until they are old enough to discern and make their own decisions,” he said in a recent opinion column.
However, UCLA education professor John Rogers, who spoke to several Nebraska school principals for a report published in November that looked at political conflict and the role it plays in public education across the nation, said educators are struggling under the weight of so many proposals.
“The Nebraska principals spoke eloquently about the ways that partisan political attacks in their local communities were making it more difficult to support informed classroom dialogue, educate young people about the full history of the United States, and protect the well-being of LGBTQ students,” said Rogers, the director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. “This climate of conflict, the principals suggested, also heightened stress amongst students and staff and led some teachers to consider leaving the profession.”
Besides enacting policy changes, Nebraska conservatives want to give the governor more control over the bodies that govern K-12 education in the state. That includes shifting selection of the Nebraska Education Commissioner and members of state Board of Education — who are currently elected — to appointment by the governor in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat as governor since 1994.
The move is reminiscent of actions in Florida, where a constitutional change 20 years ago gave the governor the power to appoint that state's education commissioner and board of education.
Other Republican-led states have seen similar pushes, including Ohio, where a bill that would shift oversight of K-12 education to the Republican governor appears to have wide support this session after dying last year.
In Arkansas, Republicans have proposed a bill to require partisan elections for local school boards, which have been a focus of conservative political action groups and Republicans considering a run for the White House.
In Nebraska, the effort started with a contentious fight in the opening days of the legislative session over committee assignments. That power struggle saw a Democratic lawmaker, Omaha Sen. Jen Day, kicked off the Education Committee and the committee’s previous Democratic chair — former school teacher Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont — ousted in favor of conservative Sen. Dave Murman, a farmer from rural Glenvil.
That gives Murman more power to advance conservative-backed legislation out of the committee, improving its chances of being enacted in the officially nonpartisan, one-house Legislature that is dominated by Republicans.
Conservative lawmakers said the committee changes would improve chances of approving the governor's proposed education funding reforms, but Democrats believe it goes further than that.
“What we are seeing this session is our normal policies and traditional operation being thrown out the window in an effort to get these culture war bills rammed through,” Day said.
The list of bills backed by Nebraska conservatives mirror proposals promoted by Republicans in Washington and in legislatures across the country that focus on schools and LGBTQ students. Among them are bills to use tax money for a private school voucher program, outlaw gender-affirming therapies for those 18 and younger and require transgender people to use school bathrooms and locker rooms that match the sex listed on their original birth certificate. The governor has expressed support for all those bills.
“We're already seeing what's happening in other states where these types of measures have been pushed through,” said Jacob Carmichael, 23, of Bennington, who has been an outspoken opponent of the conservative education and anti-LGBTQ measures this session. “In Florida, we're seeing school book shelves emptied. The AP African-American studies course has been rewritten. It is a dangerous, dangerous path.”
As a gay man, Carmichael said he's offended by the GOP push to target those in the LGBTQ community — particularly children. The bills, he said, “are about making queer people inherently inappropriate.”
One of Murman’s proposals would adopt a parents’ rights bill that would ease the process of scrubbing school libraries of books, magazines and other content parents deem inappropriate and give them more power to object to some vaccinations.
Kelly Kenney, president of the Nebraska School Libraries Association, said schools already have policies and processes in place to review material that parents find objectionable, and Murman's bill could "impose censor-like restrictions.”
“Parents and guardians have always had the right to decide what their own child can access through the school library, but they should not be able to make that decision for other people’s children arbitrarily,” Kenney said in written reply to questions about the bill. “It wouldn’t be right to let the intimidation tactics of a few vocal community members limit the access to ideas and information for all of our students.”
A bevy of parents who testified before the Education Committee in favor of the bill expressed fears of children being indoctrinated or exposed to age-inappropriate sex education in public schools. Some peppered committee members with obscene and sexualized language they said was found in Nebraska school libraries. Others were tearful, with one woman lamenting that she was not consulted when her child's school began using her 15-year-old's preferred name and pronouns, discovering it instead at a school performance where her child was introduced using their preferred name.
Murman's bill also tacitly takes aim at so-called critical race theory, following Florida’s “Stop Woke” act. While it never uses the phrase “critical race theory,” Murman's bill would forbid instruction that contends members of one ethnic group are inherently racist and should feel guilt for past actions committed by others.
Critical race theory centers on the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions and is generally taught at the university graduate level.
“I felt compelled to bring this bill because of concerns parents have brought about what's being taught in our schools," Murman said at a recent hearing.
Another bill by Murman would allow teachers to use physical contact and restraint of disruptive students without fear of legal reprisal. Critics say such use of physical force has historically been disproportionately used against minority and disabled students.