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A state senator wants to abolish the Nebraska Board of Education, which he says is "out of touch with the state of Nebraska," and give the governor control over the department and authority to hire the commissioner.

“The Nebraska State Board of Education has clearly demonstrated it has lost its way,” said Sen. John Murante of Gretna.

He introduced a resolution (LR285CA) that would allow a vote of the people on whether to eliminate the eight-member board.

Under the state constitution, board members are elected from eight geographic districts across the state to oversee the department and hire the education commissioner. The resolution would allow a vote to amend the state constitution.

The board is out of touch with Nebraskans because of its opposition to school choice and strengthening the Americanism statutes, Murante said.

He also criticized the board for embracing the Common Core Standards. However, Nebraska is one of the few states that did not adopt the voluntary standards. Instead, the state has been working with its higher education institutions to sign off on standards as adequately preparing students for college and a career.

The department has, however, drawn criticism for its proposed “civic readiness” standard, including from Sen. Mike Groene, head of the Legislature’s Education Committee, who contends the draft didn't follow the existing Americanism statutes and included “politically charged” language.

Civics education and social studies standards are often a hot-button topic, and several legislative bills have been introduced in recent years to update the Americanism statutes that date back to the McCarthy era, including requiring students to pass a civics test to graduate.

The state education board delayed a vote on the civic readiness standard to work with Groene to modify it.

State Education Board President John Witzel said a final decision on the issue is still a long way off.

“We are going to great lengths to get stakeholder input,” he said.

Having the governor in control of the department would allow no engagement with constituents, he said.

“Our state is so diversified from west to east and we have different wants, needs and interests in regards to education and they vote for the representative that will represent them well,” he said.

Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director of the public school advocacy group Stand For Schools, said giving control to the governor is a “terrible idea.”

“Local control is incredibly important to Nebraska when it comes to education,” she said.

Eliminating the board and giving control to the governor would give Nebraskans less input into their children's education, she said.

The conservative political action group Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska supports the resolution, saying the state education board has been a "stumbling block to reform" that would allow teachers "greater autonomy in the classroom" and more school choice. 

Murante says the board has become highly politicized, taking “extreme positions on ideological matters,” which he thinks would happen less under the direction of the governor, who would have a more business-like approach.

Hunter-Pirtle sees the opposite happening, saying the change would politicize the department, she said.

Regardless of whether a governor — such as Ricketts — supports school choice, having him or her control education is a bad idea.

“The best way to run public schools is with the most input as possible,” she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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