Emotions ran high during a meeting of the Nebraska State Board of Education on Friday as the board appeared to move closer to reviving the controversial health education standards.
Board members voted 6-1 to draft a policy that, if adopted, would express the board’s intent to develop academic standards in “all subject matter areas,” including health.
The vote was the clearest indication yet that the board intends to revive the standards development, but how quickly that would happen is not clear.
Last fall, the board indicated it could bring them back after considering “the state of the pandemic, the needs of children, schools and communities, and the readiness of local school stakeholders.”
The drafting of the policy was among several steps recommended by a board committee that examined the state’s standards-writing process after the failed attempt at writing health standards last year.
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The committee recommended defining what the board’s role is in writing standards and hiring a consultant who will review the process used by the Nebraska Department of Education and suggest improvements.
Several board members have suggested that the failure of the standards was due, in part, to problems with the process. A state study found that 90% of the public input on the initial draft standards was opposed.
Board member Lisa Fricke said the steps the board is taking are “so that failed process doesn’t happen again.”
Board member Kirk Penner voted against drafting the policy, saying it would lead to a revival of the standards he opposes.
“You’re going to write them if this is approved,” he said.
The initial draft of the standards proposed a year ago was praised by advocates of LGBTQ youths as inclusive. The standards contained language recognizing diverse family structures, gender identities and sexual orientations. Most of those references were stripped in a second draft, but the revised standards remained controversial, and the board postponed them indefinitely Sept. 3.
State law does not mandate that the Education Department write health standards, as it does with math and language arts, for instance. Without a mandate, any health standards adopted by the board would only be a recommendation for local schools.
Penner compared the draft standards to the so-called fairness ordinance that’s created a backlash in Lincoln, saying the standards would put kids at risk and “annihilate” Title IX protections for women.
The Lincoln ordinance extends discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender expression, but critics have argued the ordinance, among other things, opens up bathrooms and locker rooms to those who identify as transgender.
“Since you’re teaching these ideas, the door is going to be literally open for grown men and boys who identify as females to use girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms,” Penner said.
Supporters of the ordinance have argued that opponents have mischaracterized the ordinance, which they say puts protections spelled out in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling into local code.
The Lincoln Journal Star reported this past week that opponents gathered more than four times the necessary number of signatures to put the fairness ordinance before voters. The signatures must be verified before it can go before voters.
“I’m the one voice here,” Penner said Friday. “And I’m here to protect our daughters, our sons, our granddaughters and grandsons.”
Board member Deborah Neary, who has supported creation of health standards, said she wants Nebraska youths “to be competitive on a national stage, to have all the skills to be able to work with all different kinds of people and to be able to do it in a respectful way.”
“I understand you have very strong advocacy positions for your children and grandchildren,” Neary said to Penner. “We also have a moral imperative to be thinking about all of the children in our state …”
Penner responded that he would protect anybody’s daughter and granddaughter.
“I’m trying to protect women. I’m not getting any support,” he said.
Board member Jacquelyn Morrison responded, saying: “Please, please, please do not insinuate that the women around this table do not stand up for girls and children.”
Morrison said she’s always been an advocate for women and children.
During public meetings on the proposed standards, she said, the board heard testimony from “a lot of brave women and girls.”
“I had students email me privately about why they supported these standards and where we are today on the standards,” she said.
Board member Patti Gubbels was absent from Friday’s meeting.