State Board of Education’s political makeup could change with upcoming elections

13 de Mayo de 2024 a las 05:00 ·

State Board of Education
The State Board of Education during a recent meeting. (Photo by Jolie Peal/Nebraska Public Media News)

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New faces will be joining the State Board of Education after four members of the board opted to not seek reelection this year.

The board has eight members and is currently an even split of Republicans and Democrats, even though it’s officially a non-partisan board.

Three of the four members up for election are registered Democrats, which leaves the board open to the potential for a political majority in 2025.

The top two candidates in each race will advance to the general election in November. The District 1 and 3 races only have two candidates, while Districts 2 and 4 have three candidates each.

In District 2, there is one Republican candidate and two Democratic candidates running. District 4 has a Republican, a Democrat and a Non-partisan candidate campaigning for the seat.

Protect Nebraska Children, a political action committee formed to support conservative voices on the State Board of Education, has endorsed four of the five Republican candidates running this year. The Nebraska State Education Association, which is the teachers’ union, has endorsed three of the four Democratic candidates.

Dr. Matt Blomstedt was the Nebraska Department of Education Commissioner from 2014-2023. In his last year with the department, he saw an increased number of concerns regarding political and cultural impacts in schools. But he said it’s up to the state board to find balance in those conversations.

“The state board's job is one of carrying out a much broader perspective on the education system, ensuring the administration of those things, that the laws are carried out, that those minimum expectations are met from a school's perspective, the schools are supported in the work that they're doing as well,” Blomstedt said.

According to Blomstedt, the board should be a stabilizing force in education. Board members make decisions about school policies, teacher certification, school operations and curriculums.

Board members also make decisions about what policies are on the state-level versus what should be left up to the district-level. This is a priority for several of the candidates in the upcoming election.

Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said district-level decisions are important because what works in one city may not work in another, and what works for one student won’t work for someone else.

“I think sometimes we get stuck in this vacuum of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what we're teaching,’” Benson said. “But we're not looking at it as here's what a 5 year old needs to know versus here's a critical thinking skill that an 18 year old needs to know as they're graduating from high school.”

Democrats and Republicans tend to disagree on which issues should be left up to local school boards.

One example is what books should be allowed in school libraries. This year, the state board voted against a policy prohibiting sexually explicit content and removing yearly requirements for new books.

Board member Kirk Penner introduced the policy. At that meeting, he said it should be up to the state board what books are in school libraries.

“The State Board of Education has direct influence, and specifies what should be taught in our local school districts,” he said. “Offering sexually explicit content to our minor children, in my opinion, is not a local control decision.”

The policy failed on a 5-3 vote.

Those who voted against it, which includes the four candidates whose seats are up for election, said there are already local policies in place to review books.

With those spots up for election, another vote could have a different result.

Dr. Chris Haeffner, President of the Nebraska School Librarian Association, said school librarians feel supported with the current rule.

“I really worry that with the new makeup on the board of education, we could have a school board that is more likely to take away that control from our local school districts, to change the requirements that we have librarians and well-resourced libraries across the state,” she said.

Other priorities for candidates this year include addressing the teacher shortage and increasing parental involvement.

Protect Nebraska's Children issued a statement on its website that the group hopes to flip the board to a majority of conservatives.

Deborah Neary, the sole Democrat whose seat is not up for election this year, said she is concerned with that potential flip.

“We have strong schools,” she said. “And that can change with a change in board leadership.”

Blomstedt said the state board isn’t typically at the forefront of people’s minds when election season comes around, but it has an important role.

“State Board members really have the role and have historically had the role of being that voice back into the Department of Education to the commissioner to really have the best understanding of where the state is at,” he said. “You want folks that are able to do that, do that well, represent a broad set of viewpoints and then, obviously, come together and work well together as a board.”

Blomstedt added that it’s important for voters to continue following what candidates do in their elected positions.