Civics Testing Debated; Public Pension Privacy Advances

Jan. 29, 2019, 5:45 p.m. ·

Sen. Julie Slama testifies Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal to strengthen civics teaching through testing got a public hearing before the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee. And senators advanced a bill to keep more information about public employee pensions private.

Sen. Julie Slama introduced the civics education proposal, which would require schools to give students the same 100 question test new citizens have to pass. Slama, who’s 22, said she’s already forgotten a lot of what she learned in high school. However, she added “Civic education is a different story. I’ve used that knowledge every day since high school, in everything from reading the newspaper to voting in elections.”

“While not all students will strive to be an elected official, we should be giving them the basic knowledge and education to be informed citizens,” Slama said.

Doug Kagan of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom supported the proposal, and gave an example of what he thinks is wrong with current civics education efforts. “Those who intend to destroy our way of life depend very much on the ignorance of our youth to create future generations of automatons, ready and even eager to embrace oppressive ideologies,” Kagan said. “Yes, socialism appeals to some of our youth because they think it a great way to get free stuff,” he added.

Slama’s proposal updates an existing law on the teaching of “Americanism.” It would have schools teach quote “the dangers and fallacies of forms of government that restrict individual freedoms or possess antidemocratic ideals such as, but not limited to, Nazism and communism.” After another supporter, S. Wayne Smith, suggested adding socialism to the list, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks asked, why he wasn’t adding fascism as well. Smith agreed that would be a good idea.

The testing part of the proposal was opposed by the Nebraska Department of Education. The Department’s Brian Halstead read a letter from Commissioner Matt Blomsted that said “The naturalization examination is not an appropriate measure of civic readiness and should not be included in LB399. Additionally the requirement of the additional assessment usurps the powers traditionally reserved to establish local curriculum and classroom instruction materials and methods for student learning and engagement.”

Among those speaking against the bill was Angie Salahou-Philips, who objected to the idea behind the existing law and its proposed revisions. “Civics should include learning everything about our country, not just the sugarcoated, whitewashed version that suggests superiority over other countries. Systematically and routinely installing into our youth that the U.S. is superior in government structure and systems is not civics, nor is it patriotism. It’s nationalism and ethnocentrism, and it doesn’t belong in our schools,” she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Meanwhile, senators are moving to keep more information about public pensions private. Sen. Mark Kolterman wants to add Omaha Public School retirees to state employees and others whose pension information is kept private. Kolterman’s proposal would limit the information that could be released to the member’s name, when he or she began participating in the plan, and when they left. Kolterman said that’s already all that’s public with other pension plans run by the state, including those for every school district except Omaha’s.

Sen. Mike Groene said the request comes at an awkward time, given what’s been reported about the Omaha School Employees Retirement system, or OSERS. “At the exact time we have a lot of problems with OSERS, and the press has done a lot of research into the problems with that retirement plan, at that exact time we are going to give them an exception to the public records law,” he said.

The Omaha World-Herald has run a series of articles detailing how OSERS moved investments away from blue chip stocks and into unconventional investments, including in emerging markets in Brazil and Kazakhstan. The newspaper found the poor performance of those investments has led to budget pressure that have hurt students, teachers, and taxpayers.

Groene said Kolterman’s bill would hurt transparency. “You or I – the press – could not ask questions like ‘How many of your employees – retirees – are paid over $100,000 a year? What’s the average cost of your payout? What’s the average age of your payout? We’re going to take transparency out of this retirement program,” he said.

However Randy Gerke, director of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System, said aggregate information like that is still reported, just without names attached. Public employee salaries are public information. But Kolterman said pension information shouldn’t be. “It is protected information. I mean, you don’t want your personal information changed if you have a personal pension plan. So why should we as a state allow that to happen to employees that work for us?” he asked.

The Legislature gave the bill first-round approval on a vote of 40-1, with Sen. Steve Erdman voting no, and Groene and four others abstaining.

Editor’s note: By way of full disclosure, Education Commissioner Matt Blomstead is a member of the NET board.