A state panel got a taste Tuesday of the passion and emotion that’s been burning across Nebraska over health education standards for schools.
Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston pitched to lawmakers on the Education Committee her bill that would strip the Nebraska State Board of Education of the power to write the standards.
Albrecht said the Legislature needs to send a “clear and concise” message to the board.
“Sadly, the public trust has been broken, and now it’s time for the Legislature to step in and restore that trust,” she said.
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The committee members took testimony for about 2½ hours, with bill supporters and opponents taking turns. Committee members asked few questions during the hearing.
Much of the testimony focused on whether schools should have comprehensive and inclusive health standards — not on the question of whether the state education board should have the power to write them.
Zoe Miller, a testifier from Omaha, said comprehensive health education in schools would help prevent suicide, sexual violence, high sexually transmitted infection rates and high teen pregnancy rates.
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“Our health education curriculum is in dire need of reworking to be more inclusive and honest, meaning we can’t just cater our health education to cisgender White men,” Miller said.
Jo Giles, executive director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha, said all young people deserve access to complete, honest and accurate information to make informed decisions about their health and their futures.
“Omitting complete health information for young people leaves a devastating hole in their education and does not prepare them for life,” she said.
She said 57% of Nebraska kids have sex before they graduate from high school but only 8% have ever been tested for a sexually transmitted disease.
Jill Greenquist of Omaha, a wife and mother who favored the bill, said she testified to protect her children “from activist individuals and entities who believe their way of educating children should go beyond the standards of math, science, language arts and social studies.”
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“I’m disappointed,” she said, “that the Nebraska Department of Education cannot be trusted with establishing educational standards that are focused on the essentials.”
The bill (LB768) would restrict the board’s authority for developing new standards to the core academic subject areas already authorized under state law: reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
The state currently has no statewide health education standards. They are developed by local districts.
In addition, the bill would scrub the word comprehensive from a couple of passages of Nebraska law dealing with health education in schools.
Under the bill, local authorities would still be directed to provide for instructing public school students in a health education program, but the law would no longer define it as comprehensive.
Albrecht said lawmakers have a history of weighing in on major education issues, for instance passing bills on reading and civics education, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide prevention, she said.
“We, as legislators, decide the big stuff, the big stuff that’s going to make a difference in the fabric of education in the state of Nebraska,” she said.
The controversial standards have been on ice since Sept. 3 when board members, facing a groundswell of opposition, postponed their development indefinitely. The board voted 7-1 earlier this month to oppose Albrecht’s bill.
Board member Maureen Nickels on Tuesday said small school districts lack the wherewithal to write their own standards, and they rely on the state for help.
Nickels said health standards are “the only set of standards that we have not put out yet at the Department of Education, and I sincerely believe it’s important for us to have standards by the state for every curriculum out there, for every course that we teach out there.”