LINCOLN — The chair of the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee is planning to study the use of critical race theory and other controversial subjects in the classroom.
The studies, initiated by State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, stem from a request to investigate the Nebraska Department of Education made last year by a collection of state senators.
In May, Murman, chair of the Education Committee, introduced a trio of interim study resolutions to look at parental involvement in public schools, the usage of “social-emotional learning” in the classroom and how federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding was used by the department for a state website aimed at helping schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Murman said the three interim study resolutions will be the subject of a July 31 hearing where committee members will hear invited testimony from department officials, retired educators and parents. The hearing is open to the public, but the general public will not be allowed to testify, he said. It’s not unusual for interim study resolutions to limit testimony to invited guests.
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Unlike legislative bills, lawmakers can introduce interim study resolutions at any point in the session. It’s up to lawmakers how far they want to go with the resolutions and in this case, Murman is choosing to start with a hearing.
Last year, Murman and others called for an investigation into the Department of Education, alleging it provided materials to teachers promoting critical race theory through the website Launch Nebraska. Now, Murman said “investigation” is too strong a word to describe his goals. He wants to consider how Nebraska’s education system can improve in these areas moving forward.
“That’s what parents have demanded over the past two years,” Murman said.
The allegations centered on one document, titled “Winning Racial Justice In Our Schools,” by the Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative at New York University.
The document never was directly available on Launch Nebraska, but it was accessible by clicking a link to a different website, called the Culturally Responsible Education Hub, which at one point had a link to the document.
Education Department spokesman David Jespersen said this connection was in place for a few months at most. The department was not aware that the document was indirectly available through the website until last summer, when then-Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office reached out with concerns, and in response department officials removed the link. Former Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said in October the lawmakers who backed the investigation did not reach out beforehand.
Jespersen said no federal funds were used to build Launch Nebraska, and there’s no evidence the document was ever used in any Nebraska public schools. But Murman said he’s continued to hear concerns from parents and teachers about inappropriate material being taught in the classroom.
Murman claimed there are still resources remaining on state websites promoting critical race theory and comprehensive sex education, although he couldn’t provide any specific examples. Jespersen said several weeks after the October press conference, Murman’s office reached out with more concerns about similar external links, but after review department officials deemed they didn’t warrant any changes.
Although people have differing interpretations of critical race theory, a central tenet of it is the assertion that the laws and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist and advantage White people over other races, particularly African Americans.
Adherents say the theory is a framework or lens for understanding race in history and society to help illuminate a pathway to improving the country. But critics say it promotes the idea that members of a specific race are inherently inferior or superior.
Murman said he would prefer Nebraska’s public schools focus on “the basics,” such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Social issues, he said, are best left to be taught by parents or churches.
As these studies are considered, Murman and another state lawmaker have bills in the works aimed in a similar direction. Legislative Bill 374, introduced by Murman, would give parents access to review all learning materials their school uses, and give parents an opportunity to object and withdraw their students from lessons or activities in which materials are used that conflict with the “parent’s firmly held beliefs, values, or principles.”
LB 71, introduced by Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue, would require that public schools disclose instructional materials to parents and allow parents to request that their child be excused from certain lessons or activities. Neither bill made it to the finish line this year, but either could be brought up again next session.
If one of the bills passes next year, Murman said the studies may still be needed depending on how comprehensive the final bill ends up. He said his goal is to ensure that Nebraska’s public schools are as transparent as possible to parents without putting too much of a burden on the state’s education system.
On the issue of transparency, Jespersen said most of the suggestions proposed are already in place in Nebraska’s school districts. However, he welcomed the studies, saying if any of them illuminate legitimate issues, then they’d be worth it.
“If this leads to more understanding … then it’s a good thing,” Jespersen said.