Nebraska Lawmakers Set For Showdown Over Social-Emotional Learning

Two other resolutions by Sen. Dave Murman focus on parental involvement in education and the Nebraska DOE’s use of COVID-19 pandemic relief funds.

A teacher sits on the floor with two young students, who are coloring and playing with small toys.

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LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers will be back Monday after two months with a dueling education hearing and forum on social and emotional learning.

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The Education Committee will meet in State Capitol Room 1525 at 1:30 p.m. Monday to consider three studies offered by State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, the committee’s chair.

Legislative Resolutions 147, 148 and 149 will respectively look at parental involvement in education, the Nebraska Department of Education’s use of COVID-19 pandemic relief funds and social and emotional learning in K-12 schools.

Murman described these as information gathering and paths toward transparency to improve schools.

“I’m looking forward to the hearing, and hopefully we’ll come out after the hearing with better ideas, especially for the future going forward in education,” Murman said this week.

Monday will feature eight testifiers but no opportunity for public comment, which is not unusual for interim studies. The eight are:

  • Brian Maher, the Nebraska education commissioner.
  • Mike Pate, a Millard Public Schools board member.
  • Lisa Wagner, president of the Central City Public School Board.
  • Jackie Egan, representing NAACP Lincoln, Nebraskans for Peace, Let’s Talk Alliance and the Lincoln Education Collaboration.
  • Kirk Penner, a State Board of Education member and former Aurora Public Schools board member (testifying in his personal capacity).
  • Lisa Schonhoff, an English language learning educator with Bennington Public Schools.
  • Sue Greenwald of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition, a conservative political action committee that formed in 2021 to elect more conservative school board members.
  • Lori Samuelson, a school psychologist in Hastings Public Schools.

Back to ‘basics’

Following years of backlash to critical race theory and comprehensive sex education, Monday’s hearing may feature a new concept for some: social and emotional learning.

The new home of the Nebraska Department of Education in east Lincoln. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The Nebraska Department of Education borrows a definition from CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, that it is the process for children and adults to “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

The department also has its own guide for educators and leaders about the concept.

Murman said social and emotional learning has become a “buzzword,” and the hearing is a way to consider its role compared to the “basics,” such as reading, writing, math and STEM subjects.

Renee Jones, a Lincoln Public Schools teacher and the 2023 Nebraska Teacher of the Year, said the social and emotional well-being of students has been a “pressing concern,” exacerbated by challenges because of COVID-19.

“We simply cannot stick to teaching the ‘basics’ (math, reading, writing, history, etc) without recognizing that we are teaching humans, rather than information robots,” Jones said in an email.

Framework as ‘Trojan horse’

However, Penner has said social and emotional learning is the “Trojan horse” for all gender and critical race theory lessons being brought into education.

“3 of us on the board are on a mission to remove SEL and after ‘24 elections we should have the majority to have it removed,” Penner said in a July 15 tweet.

An event poster for the York County Republicans. (York County Republicans/Facebook)

The York County Republicans will host an event led by Greenwald, a former pediatrician, on Tuesday — ”S.E.L. Horrors” — where she is set to address how social and emotional learning has “infiltrated” every aspect of the school day.

The event will feature Greenwald’s interpretation of how social and emotional learning brings Marxist teachings, how moral relativism is replacing moral absolutes of religion, how sexualizing children traumatizes them and how the nuclear family is under attack.

Schonhoff, who is running for the State Boad of Education, said she has been a public school educator for more than 20 years and is a mom of four children attending public schools. She said she will share how the teaching “is being pushed into our schools at alarming speeds.”

‘The whole child has to be involved’

State Board of Education member Deb Neary of Omaha said many of the topics for Monday’s hearing are “born out of politics” and not problems in the state. Similar issues were dominant in Neary’s re-election campaign last fall, including continued fallout after the board considered health education standards, including sex education, in 2021.

Deborah Neary. (Nebraska Department of Education)

Neary said teachers and schools have been teaching social and emotional learning for decades.

“Teachers and schools have always talked about kindness and getting along and persistence,” Neary said. “Now they’ve been tagged with a name and there’s been a lot of misinformation around it and fear-mongering by politicians.”

Jones said she’d like the committee to bear in mind how each component of a student’s health impacts not just their academic performance but their “ability to navigate life beyond school.”

Murman said the hearing is not intended to diminish teachings of kindness and compassion but to help everyone involved with education understand and improve systems for students.

“If they [students] don’t have the right mental health or emotional health, it’s not the best learning environment either,” Murman said. “The whole child has to be involved in education.”

Additional resolutions

Murman’s two other resolutions are intended to dive deeper into efforts announced in the past year.

This spring he introduced Legislative Bill 374 — the “Parents’ Bill of Rights and Academic Transparency Act” — which has not advanced from the Education Committee. It would legislate that parents are the “foremost decision maker in every child’s life” and address parental involvement.

Lisa Wagner of Central City said she plans to detail how parental involvement is addressed in her city.

State Sen. Dave Murman, at the podium, calls for a legislative investigation of the Nebraska Department of Education on Oct. 17, 2022. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The final resolution comes nine months after Murman and four other senators called for an investigation into the Nebraska Department of Education’s use of pandemic funds, centered on Launch Nebraska, a department website built to help schools reopening during the pandemic. 

The office of then-Gov. Pete Ricketts identified a New York University website link last June that, after two or three clicks, led to a document defending critical race theory and discussing racial justice. The link was removed prior to the senators’ news conference last October.

In November, Murman also called for the department to remove links and resources to National Sexuality Education Standards on its HIV/Sexual Health Education Homepage. The resources remain on the department’s website.

David Jespersen, a spokesman for the department, confirmed Murman’s office had reached out on some links, which were left up after staff decided they were appropriate.

Jespersen said there are still layers of vetting for anything that goes on the website.

Murman said he understands that Brian Maher only started in his role leading the State Department of Education this month and was not in charge when the pandemic funds were spent. He said it’s not about trying a “gotcha” but understanding what happened and what can be done moving forward.

Public forum down the hall

Just down the hall from the hearing will be a public forum on social and emotional learning, led by State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh, John Cavanaugh, Terrell McKinney, Carol Blood and Megan Hunt. The forum will start at 3 p.m. in Room 1510.

A dual forum is scheduled for Monday down the hall from the Education Committee. (State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh/Twitter)

None of the five senators serve on the Education Committee, though McKinney served on it previously. He has said that anyone worried about what’s going on with education in Florida should pay attention to the hearing. 

Machaela Cavanaugh said there was a “pretty large outcry” from the public about not being able to testify on Murman’s resolutions.

“I thought, well, if we’re only going to have one side of testimony here, and that doesn’t seem appropriate, we should find an avenue for the public to come in and share their thoughts,” she said.

The senators have the space for two hours, and Cavanaugh said they’ll try to accommodate anyone wishing to speak. It will run similarly to a normal hearing but won’t be recorded since it’s not official.

Murman said he will likely sit in on the forum and does not want to be confrontational.

“I just want to hear a broad range of ideas on all three of those LRs,” Murman said. “I’m sure there’ll be some beneficial testimony there.”

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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