Hearing on hot-button education issues signals Nebraska conservatives’ plans for next year

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Just two months after one of Nebraska’s most contentious legislative sessions, lawmakers signaled Monday that more angry debate is likely next year over legislation to determine how schools deal with race, LGBTQ+ issues and other hot-button issues that have proved divisive in other Republican-controlled states like Florida.

Sen. Dave Murman, the conservative chairman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee, held a hearing that mostly discussed the use in schools of social-emotional learning, or SEL, that has become a lightning rod among conservatives who say schools use it to promote progressive ideas about race, gender and sexuality, and that a focus on students’ well-being takes attention away from academics.

The decades-old concept seeks to teach students how to manage their emotions, make good decisions, share and collaborate. But several witnesses invited by Murman made far-fetched claims that it’s being used to teach critical race theory in public schools, is part of a conspiracy to mine private student data and is even being used a form of “mind control.”

Murman, a farmer from Glenvil, took over as chairman of the committee last year, when Republicans in the officially nonpartisan, one-chamber Legislature ousted a Democratic former schoolteacher from the post in what was widely seen as an effort by conservatives to “crack and pack” key committees to get more of their bills to the floor for debate.

That included education bills. A bill to allow taxpayer money to be used to fund private school scholarships did eventually pass. But others stalled, including a so-called parents rights bill by Murman to make it easier for parents to object to curriculum and remove books from school libraries.

Murman’s hearing Monday was an indication he will seek to revive that bill when the new session begins in January.

One of those invited to speak was Nebraska Board of Education member Kirk Penner, who noted that he was testifying for himself and not speaking for the board. He leveled accusations of pornography littering the shelves of public school libraries and accused administrators of pushing critical race theory — an academic theory that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions. He also advocated for passage of the parents rights bill.

Another witness, retired Kearney pediatrician Sue Greenwald, testified on behalf of a conspiracy-based political action committee she founded, the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition. She wove a convoluted tale that social-emotional learning is part of an agenda funded by global organizations who pay kickbacks to school administrators with the intention of indoctrinating students into everything from Marxist ideology to questioning their sexual orientation.

“I know I’m sounding like a crazy conspiracy theorist now,” Greenwald said. “But children are being given an employability score that will be used against them in 20 years.”

Asked seconds later about those conspiracies, she replied, “When the crazy people speak, you should believe them.”

Some of the most controversial testimony came from Murman himself, when he was asked by fellow Sen. Danielle Conrad if he agreed with recently approved Florida education standards that teach that slaves benefited from the skills they learned while enslaved.

“Slavery is wrong; there’s no doubt about that. But we all benefit from our background,” Murman replied, eliciting groans from the crowd.

Aggravated by the bent of the hearing, several left-leaning lawmakers held a competing public forum just down the hall in the Capitol in which the public was invited to express its views on social-emotional learning. A couple of dozen people turned out, with several criticizing conservatives who use phrases like “woke agenda” and words such as “groomers” and “indoctrination” to describe the state’s public education system and teachers.

Charlie Yale, 17, who is entering his senior year at Omaha Central High School next month, called out conservatives’ characterization of social-emotional learning as “simply not the truth.”

“For them, it’s not about education,” he said. “It’s about trying to turn Nebraska into the next Florida.”

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