A legislative resolution to let voters decide whether to abolish the Nebraska Board of Education and allow the governor to hire the commissioner got little support during a hearing Tuesday.
Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director of Stand For Schools, a nonprofit that advocates for public schools, called the measure undemocratic and said it would politicize the operation of schools.
"Public schools work best when they have as much input from the public as possible," she said. "We believe voters should have direct control over public education at both local and state levels."
Sen. John Murante of Gretna said he introduced the resolution (LR285CA), which would allow a vote of the people on whether to eliminate the eight-member state education board, because it would be more consistent with the administration of other state agencies.
It would help streamline the education department and make it more efficient, he said, and people would know the governor is accountable. Now, he said, most people don't know who represents them on the state board.
Under the state constitution, board members are elected from eight geographic districts across the state to oversee the department and hire the state education commissioner.
District-based elections are important for political subdivisions that appropriate resources, but state aid isn’t determined by the state education department, Murante said.
When he introduced the resolution, Murante said the state board is “out of touch” with Nebraskans because of its opposition to school choice and strengthening the Americanism statutes.
However, the resolution wasn’t prioritized, which Murante said made Tuesday’s hearing largely a discussion on the issue.
The six people who testified all opposed the measure, including Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen, who said voters would never approve giving a governor control over hiring the education commissioner.
“I’ll tell you, I really know what the outcome will be and there won’t be anybody who says I think we ought to do away with the people’s ability to decide who sits on the Nebraska board of education."
John Witzel, president of the state education board, said district elections give people a voice in state education matters. The board puts aside partisan politics and prides itself on often coming to consensus.
John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said the state has a long history of local control — or decentralization — in education, and it has worked well.
Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt noted that the board also acts in a quasi-judicial role in issues of option enrollment and with educators facing allegations of violating professional practices.