A bill designed to change teaching laws in Nebraska and give more input to parents caused concern for future and past educators at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Proposed by Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil to the Education Committee, LB374 would establish a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and require the creation of a streamlined parent transparency portal, where teachers would upload individual learning materials and tests, among other items, for parents to see and approve.

LB374 would also create a system for parents to access and call for the removal of library books lacking educational benefit, as well as ratify parents and students’ choice to reject “collective guilt” for actions committed in the past by members of their same race, ethnicity, color or national origin. 

Murman said the bill was not about government control, but instead parental autonomy over their children’s education. 

“Above all else, this bill aims to make clear that every parent is the foremost decision maker in every child’s life,” Murman said in his testimony at the Jan. 31 public hearing.  

Jordan Brandt, a senior Spanish education major who is currently student teaching at Lincoln Southeast High School, said the proposed legislation worries him about the future of the occupation.

While Brandt emphasized his confidence in his pursuit of teaching, he felt the bill could change the minds of other future educators.

“Where teachers have to fear losing their job or losing their license over materials or instruction, I think that would be something that would dissuade students from pursuing education,” Brandt said. 

Brandt said he supports transparency but said LB374 goes over the line and paints teachers as potential criminals. At Lincoln Southeast, there already are curriculum guides and access for parents to understand what their child is consuming, according to Brandt.

“I don't necessarily think that means that we're keeping students in mind as our main priority,” Brandt said. “It becomes a fight between which materials or beliefs are more important. In public schools, we're not highlighting any belief that's more important. We're here to teach students to be the best people that they can be.”

Theresa Catalano, a professor specializing in language teacher education, said the bill represented “an attack on public education.”

For the 2022-2023 school year, Nebraska school districts reported roughly 769 positions that are not filled with fully qualified teachers, with about 208 positions completely vacant. Over 190 districts had unfilled positions at the beginning of the school year. 

Catalano, who taught in Omaha Public Schools for four years, said she has districts begging her for new teachers before the education students have completed their student teaching requirement. With a bill that would allow legal action to be filed against educators, current students might be hesitant to pursue the career, she said.

“Do we really want teachers to feel they could be in danger of facing legal actions for just doing their job?” Catalano said. “The job is already so hard that teachers are leaving the field in droves.”

Parent transparency portal

The parent transparency portal included in the bill lists learning materials, activities, curriculum, lessons, syllabi, surveys, tests, questionnaires, examinations, books, magazines, handouts, professional development and training materials under what teachers would have to post online for parent approval.

Additionally, the bill states that an opportunity must be provided for parents to object to any individual learning material “on the basis that such material or activity harms the child or impairs the parent’s firmly held beliefs, values, or principles,” with an option for them to remove their child from any such activities. 

Ted Hamann, a professor who specializes in educational policy and practice, said a teacher’s ability to veer from the curriculum slightly to discuss an unexpected subject is the reason schools employ human educators and not machines. 

Creating a structure for teachers to strictly follow and forcing them to engage in intensive reports of lesson planning would make teachers paranoid, he said.

For Brandt, the inability to have control over his classroom would make him apprehensive to teach anything not specifically on the curriculum. He said outside control of the classroom diminishes the role teachers have in their own classrooms and discourages critical thinking.

“It becomes really hard for teachers and students because it requires them to have to study, get approval and basically put red tape on everything that they want to teach,” Brandt said. “It’s hard for teachers to be successful.”

Parental review of library materials

A critical part of the bill is the creation of the Parental Review Recommended system, where all books in the library could be accessed and approved by parents, with an accessible way for them to remove books from libraries. 

Sherry Jones, a former teacher from Grand Island Public Schools and the State Board of Education District 6 candidate, voiced her support for the bill during the hearing. Jones said that the bill promotes unity between teachers and parents by providing parents with information while not infringing on educators’ rights. 

She expressed support for parents’ access to library items saying resources in school libraries should be of “wholesome quality” without violence or profanity. 

“Images and words have great and lasting impact on a child’s developing mind,” Jones said.

Hamann said that Murman’s bill puts the role of American public education, which he dated back to 1642, in peril because it “dramatically restricts” what occurs in a school setting. He said the bill is built on the false premise that parents don’t have any level of autonomy over their child’s education.

As examples of parental autonomy, he cited sex education, where parents have the option to pull their student out of the class — which he noted is “probably to a kid’s detriment” — and field trips, which the school requires parent permission slips for.

“A school is a space generally that is willing to accommodate what a parent wants,” Hamann said.

Race-related discussions 

Murman’s bill contains specific barriers for classroom discussions of race. Part of LB374 strictly prohibits instruction stating that one race “bears collective guilt and is inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race.”

“I can think of no greater hatred than telling a classroom of 11-year-old students that white children are responsible for America’s history of slavers and colonizers,” Murman said. 

Catalano said this addition could make educators afraid of teaching the history of slavery in the United States because of the bill’s vagueness. 

Hamann said the bill’s wording plays into a “white fragility narrative.” He said that no school is systematically teaching that being white is terrible, but instead, they are educating and answering questions students would have about the country’s history.

“There's an awful lot of implied dastardly deeds that are supposedly happening routinely at school that are sort of alluded to in this legislation,” Hamann said. “And these dastardly deeds are not happening.”

Teaching future educators

Hamann said a major appeal to teaching is becoming part of a larger social network, as he said schools play a central role in the creation of a community. When a bill like LB374 creates a division between parents and educators, it inhibits joy in teaching, he said.

He emphasized that teachers “overwhelmingly” want the same level of success for their students that parents do, and they work hard to move them forward in life. Introducing suspicion into that, he said, feels corrosive.

“Suddenly, the parents are the enemy or they're scrutinizing you,” he said. “It inhibits the central spirit of how education is supposed to happen.”

Hamann said he hears more students ask if they will be trusted as professionals once they begin teaching much more than he did at the beginning of his career.

Catalano said that in UNL’s teacher preparation program, they have to prepare for these potential changes and keep students informed about the future of their desired careers.

“It’s hard to tell these bright students … ‘You face a really difficult road because people are trying to make the job even tougher for you,’” Catalano said. “We have to let them know what to expect when they’re in the real world. But it’s daunting.” 

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha proposed a motion to indefinitely postpone LB374 on Feb. 1. The Education Committee has not taken further action on the bill since its public hearing.