On Friday, members of the Nebraska Board of Education voted to hire a consultant to review the process for writing state academic content standards — a process that culminated in health education standards last year. which have sharply divided Nebraskanians.
Over the years, the state standards-writing process had steadily developed standards for required core subjects such as math and English with little controversy.
But when the council launched voluntary health education standards last year that included sex education, they met with such overwhelming public opposition that the council signed them off.
Board members voted 8-0 to authorize Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt to enter into a contract with the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Virginia.
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Under the $50,000 contract, the organization will review the process used by Nebraska and provide a report with recommendations by May 1, 2023.
Hiring a consultant was among several recommendations from an ad hoc committee of the board appointed last November after the board indefinitely postponed developing the health education standards in September.
Standards are what state officials believe children should know and be able to do at each level.
In the past, Nebraska’s proposed standards for social studies and science caused some minor contention skirmishes. But those debates paled next to the storm that erupted when the council proposed what it described as inclusive standards that included teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The initial project planned to teach children from the age of 6 about gender identity and gender stereotypes.
Proponents said the standards would stem bullying, prevent suicides and make schools a welcoming place for all students, regardless of gender identity or non-traditional family structure.
Opponents said the standards amounted to political advocacy that did not reflect the values of most Nebraska parents. They said the standards would rob children of their innocence and sexualize children.
Several board members suggested that the failure of the standards was due, in part, to process issues.
Critics say the Nebraska Department of Education did not invite conservative voices to get involved in the writing process.
Board member Patti Gubbels said the review would be “almost like an external assessment”.
The consultant will “come and review the standards development processes and procedures to really do a sort of in-depth assessment with suggestions for improvements,” Gubbels said.
The consultant will examine how other states develop standards. The review will include focus group interviews with school leaders, teachers, policy makers, parents, families and carers.
Board member Kirk Penner voted in favour, but said he doubted the review would do much good. He said the process was not the reason the standards failed.
“That was the content, and they’re not going to get that from this consultant,” Penner said.