People used to say that the Nebraska State Board of Education was flying under the radar.
The public’s radar is locked on the four seats up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election.
The races are among the hottest in the state, fueled by disagreements over what and when children should be taught about sexuality and race, which books belong in school libraries, fairness versus equality and the boundaries of the authority of the council.
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Student achievement also emerged as an issue, as both sides point to test scores as evidence of how well or poorly they think the state is doing.
Four Republicans hope to make inroads on the board with a “back to basics” message. They face two Democrats, an Independent and a Republican – all backed by the Nebraska State Teachers Union.
Aurora’s Republican Kirk Penner, nominated by Gov. Pete Ricketts, faces Independent Helen Raikes of Ashland, a retired education professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in District 5.
Republican Sherry Jones and Democrat Danielle Helzer, both of Grand Island, are running in District 6, where incumbent Maureen Nickels declined to run.
In District 7, Republican Elizabeth Tegtmeier of North Platte takes on Republican incumbent Robin Stevens of Gothenburg. Stevens received the endorsement from the teachers’ union.
In Metro Omaha, Republican Marni Hodgen is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Deborah Neary in District 8.
The last time the four board seats were contested in a general election was in 2006. At the time, the state was in the midst of a political struggle over whether to put implemented standardized testing for school children across the state.
In the past, seats were often uncontested.
Board elections are held every two years, when four of the eight seats are up for election.
In the last 11 such elections – that is, from 2000 to 2020 – 16 candidates came to power unchallenged.
If campaign donations are any indicator, then the race in Central and Western Nebraska’s District 7 suggests voters are engaged.
By the Oct. 4 deadline for state reports, Tegtmeier had raised more than $129,000 in his bid to unseat Stevens — likely a record high for a state council candidate. Four years ago, Stevens ran unopposed. This year he has raised a large war chest, aided by significant out-of-pocket spending, but that’s just over half Tegtmeier.
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, a Republican and former member of the board of education, said no one should be surprised at the controversy surrounding the board.
“These are very important issues, and it should come as no surprise that Nebraskanians, when made aware of these issues, take great interest in them,” Evnen said. “We’re talking about the education of Nebraska children here, and their parents care very deeply about that.”
Evnen said that during his time on the board, writing social studies standards generated the most public interest. Other topics drew crowds, he said, but “the enormous interest shown now is greater than anything we’ve experienced on any one issue.”
Over the years, the council has drawn crowds when it addressed climate change in state standards, when Common Core was a thing, and when a former council member’s blog posts were criticized.
Roger Breed, a former Nebraska education commissioner who supports Raikes and Neary, said political fights have taken place in the past, but this one is different.
He said there seems to be a “national thread” where people repeat what he called “extremist” views from the radical right.
“It’s somewhat Trumpian in the sense that instead of talking about a political issue, you accuse your opponents of something so outrageous that they have to spend their time dealing with the outrageous rather than dealing with the issues. policies,” he said.
Jane Kleeb, chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party, also called the Republican challengers “extremists.”
“They keep lying about public school teachers, calling them groomers and mind polluters,” she said.
She’s referring to a controversial documentary, “The Mind Polluters,” which is making the rounds among conservative Nebraska rallies. The film claims that some activist teachers in public schools across the country are using sex education and social-emotional learning to indoctrinate students into a progressive curriculum.
“This is how Republicans treat and think of our public school teachers,” Kleeb said. “We don’t need these extremists making decisions about our public education.”
Todd Watson, political director for the Republican Party of Nebraska, said politicians resort to name-calling when they themselves have “no substantive approach to politics, legislation or leadership.”
“I hope people see it clearly,” Watson said.
State board candidates squabble over Nebraska test scores and hot-button issues
He said Nebraskanians don’t like the social agenda in education and want schools to go back to basics. He said the Republican candidates are problem solvers with clear plans for what they are going to do.
He noted the release last week of the average composite ACT score for 2022 graduates statewide, which was the lowest in at least 10 years.
“If you want to call me an extremist for wanting to increase ACT scores from over 21 to under 20, then call me extreme for that position,” Watson said.
Watson said that when an organization is not performing, you change leaders.
Hodgen said students’ skills on state tests were too low, but Neary pointed to another national test that she says shows children in Nebraska are doing better than their peers in other states.
So what’s at stake on November 8?
If Republicans win seats, it would make it harder for the council to revive controversial health education standards that were postponed a year ago.
It appears the newly elected board would be responsible for selecting a replacement for Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, who announced he would step down in January.
Members could select a research firm at their December meeting – their last before the January swearing in of newly elected council members.
At a political forum, Neary stressed the importance of choosing a replacement, noting that Blomstedt served nearly a decade.
“That means the members of our board of directors who you vote for are going to decide the future of public education in the state of Nebraska for the next 10 years, and there’s a lot at stake,” a- she declared.
There is no fixed term for the Commissioners, who serve at the pleasure of the Board.
A lesser known but key role of the board is to ensure the smooth and effective implementation of the state assessments and accountability system. The system evaluates the performance of schools and districts and intervenes to help those who are in difficulty.
During the pandemic, testing and accountability was initially suspended. It was later revived, but student turnouts have plummeted, making it hard to guess how kids and schools are doing.
Once the pandemic is over, it will be up to the next board to ensure the system is fully operational again to provide parents, legislators and policy makers with the comprehensive and reliable data they need to assess student success.
A decision for the next council will be to continue writing standards in areas not required by law.
The council attracted little public attention when it endorsed such standards in fine arts, physical education, world languages, and vocational and technical education.
But that changed in 2021, when the council unveiled voluntary health education standards around sexual orientation and gender identity.
The initial project planned to teach children from the age of first year about gender identity.
The public responded with a storm of criticism which led the board to postpone development.
Hodgen, who challenges Neary, runs ads in which she promises that if elected she will stick to writing standards in essential areas required by lawmakers.
Neary said the new education commissioner will set deadlines for drafting and updating standards that prioritize student needs.
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