Amendment to eliminate State Board of Education proposed

Voters could choose to eliminate the State Board of Education under a proposed constitutional amendment considered by the Education Committee March 1.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan
Sen. Lou Ann Linehan

The eight-member board sets education policy and ensures that the state Department of Education carries out duties established by the state constitution and set out by the Legislature and the board.

Currently, the board appoints the commissioner of education, who is the administrative head of the department.

LR278CA, sponsored by Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, would transfer that power to the governor. It also would transfer the power to issue revenue bonds from the board to the commissioner at the direction of the governor.

If passed by the Legislature, the resolution would place the question on the November 2022 general election ballot.

Linehan said Nebraska is one of few states in which neither state lawmakers nor the governor appoint members to a state board of education or hire a commissioner of education.

Many Nebraskans do not know who represents them on the board, she said, but most know who the governor is and could more easily hold that person accountable for education policy.

Laura Rauscher of Lancaster County supported the measure, saying State Board members have been unresponsive to opponents of its development of health education standards over the past year.

Matthew Blomstedt, commissioner of education, testified in opposition to LR278CA. He said Nebraska’s system allows for oversight and flexibility and is “among the most stable governance structures.”

Dave Welsch also testified in opposition to the resolution on behalf of several school organizations, including the Nebraska State Education Association, Nebraska Council of School Administrators and Nebraska Association of School Boards.

Public education should be governed by an independent, elected board that sets policy within guidelines established by the Legislature, he said, and the commissioner should be appointed by the board based on qualifications, not political affiliation or agenda.

Also in opposition was Abbi Swatsworth of OutNebraska. She said the current system allows the State Board to hire a commissioner who is focused on equity for all Nebraska public school students. If the commissioner is appointed by the governor, Swatsworth said, the role could become more partisan.

Additionally, she said, the board now serves as an “unbiased broker” when deciding education policy and focuses on a long-term plan for public education in Nebraska.

“We believe that, without a state school board … perhaps greater Nebraska communities would not have a voice in state-level education decisions as power is consolidated under the governor.”

Sara Skretta testified in opposition to LR278CA on behalf of the Nebraska Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. She said LR278CA would prevent Nebraskans from participating in educational policy making through election to the board. She said an independent board is needed to ensure consistent leadership on education issues.

“LR278CA would result in an education system that is inherently political, rather than one focused on educational policy,” Skretta said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposal.

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