Nebraska, Utah Ponder Need for State Boards

By Kirsten Goldberg — March 02, 1987 5 min read

Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is expected to open debate soon on a bill that would place before voters a constitutional amendment calling for the abolition of the state board of education.

Passed by a unanimous vote of the education committee and designated a “priority” item, the bill is an attempt, its proponents say, to make policymakers more accountable to the legislature and the governor.

It is also, say national experts, a reflection of the increased scrutiny being given to the role of state boards in a reform era that has thus far been led almost entirely by elected officials outside the educational establishment.

“Most boards have not been strong leadership agencies,” said Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University and former president of the California board of education.

He noted that within the last three years several states have attempted structural changes in their boards, with most seeking to move from elected to governor-apted bodies. None of these con2p4sidered eliminating its board, however.

“The growth of state legislation, regulation, and educational initiatives means that boards have become more important in carrying out administrative responsibilities,” Mr. Kirst said.

Similar Bill in Utah

But in this legislative season, the idea of dropping the state board altogether emerged both in Nebraska and in Utah.

Utah lawmakers adjourned their 1988 session last week after failing to take final action on a measure that would, upon approval by voters, have left the fate of that state’s board in the hands of the legislature. The proposed constitutional amendment was approved by a 2-to-1 margin in the House, but stalled in the Senate rules committee.

“The stakes have gone up and people are asking hard questions about the role of the board,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “We see a definite role for a group of lay citizens that has oversight of policy decisions.”

But in Nebraska, where the proposed constitutional amendment8would replace the board with a commissioner of education appointed by the governor, sentiment is divided.

“The board doesn’t provide much direction and can never make a decision,” said State Senator Dennis G. Baack of Kimball, the bill’s sponsor. “The education department ought to be treated as any other state agency.”

Those opposing the measure, however, say it is an unwarranted move that will politicize education. It has been prompted not by the need for greater efficiency or accountability, they contend, but by conflicts between the board and legislature over several contentious issues, most notably the consolidation of the state’s nearly 900 school districts.

“If the commissioner is appointed by the governor,” said Max D. Larsen of Lincoln, chairman of the Nebraska board, “then at every election the direction of the train will change, and our children will have to change direction with it.”

In both Nebraska and Utah, the education department is a constitutional agency under the direction of the state board, which appoints the chief state school officer.

Only one state--Wisconsin--does not have a state board. In Florida, the governor’s cabinet, an advisory body, also serves as the state board.

‘No Direction’

Mr. Baack, who is vice chairman of the Nebraska legislature’s education committee, said his legislation had been prompted by the state board’s lack of leadership and by a need for greater accountability.

“We need to have a good discussion of where education has been in Nebraska and where it is going,” he said.

As an example of the board’s alleged inaction, he noted that it had not yet decided whether to support Gov. Kay A. Orr’s proposed restoration of $10.7 million in funding for precollegiate education, part of nearly $14 million that has been cut since 1982.

Instead of making a decision on the Governor’s proposal, Mr. Baack said, the board passed a resolution in January supporting legislation that would restore the entire $14 million.

In Mr. Baack’s view, the board functions merely as a regulatory agency and “shouldn’t try to set policy.”

Noting that there is opposition in the legislature to his proposal to eliminate the board, he said he would consider amending the bill to make the panel an advisory council.

The education committee approved Mr. Baack’s bill by a vote of 6 to 0, with two committee members absent. Since it is designated a priority item, the measure is likely to be debated before the session ends April 8.

Voter Opposition Predicted

The bill would need the votes of 30 of the assembly’s 49 members for the constitutional amendment to be placed on the ballot in November.

Opponents predict that the proposal would not be accepted by voters because it runs counter to Nebraska’s tradition of strong local control of education.

Mr. Larsen described the board’s role as the implemention and interpretation of mandates from the legislature, tasks he said lawmakers have little time or inclination to consider.

“Education should be politicized as little as possible,” the board chairman said.

Dale E. Siefkes, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, related the move to eliminate the board to a number of controversial issues--including school finance and consolidation--that the legislature has fought the education department on for many years.

The state board and the education department support the consolidation of districts, but there is strong opposition in the legislature, he said.

Mr. Kirst of Stanford University noted that Nebraska is one of only 10 states that has not passed an education-reform program. In the reform states, he said, the boards typically did not initiate the effort, but became major players later.

Shift to Local Boards

In Utah, State Representative Rob Bishop, a teacher from Brigham City, sponsored a bill that would have allowed lawmakers, through a constitutional amendment approved by voters, to decide what form the board should take.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 50 to 24 on Feb. 12, but did not garner enough support in the Senate to get out of the rules committee.

The purpose of the bill, Mr. Bishop said, was to “shift power down to locally elected boards.”

“Decisions are best the closer they are to the kid in the classroom,” he said.

Mr. Bishop also had introduced a companion bill that would have eliminated the state board and shifted policy decisions to the legislature, with the governor appointing the state superintendent. That bill stalled in the House education committee.