Omaha World-Herald. Nov. 28, 2021.
Editorial: Nebraskans should reject radical overhaul of state education board, department
Societies should hold fast to an important guiding principle for government: avoid a heavy centralizing of power. This is why our country’s founders emphasized the need for a separation of powers in the federal government. It’s why they insisted that state governments retain robust authority separate from federal control.
A new Nebraska petition drive promotes changes in Nebraska government that would violate this principle. The petition organizers seek to concentrate state education policy-making under the governor’s authority. Such an approach would ill serve the public interest.
Plus, it’s strikingly ironic that the petition, launched by conservatives, promotes the type of centralized government authority normally advocated by the political left.
Under the proposal, Nebraska would create a new Office of Education accountable to the governor, replacing the State Board of Education, education commissioner and Nebraska Department of Education. The governor would appoint the director of the office, subject to confirmation by a majority of state senators.
Making this change would require amending the Nebraska Constitution — a telling indicator of how sweeping this move would be, and why the proposal should give Nebraskans serious pause.
From a national perspective, concentrating education-related power in the governor’s hands to such an extreme degree is rare. Indeed, only one state, Oregon, designates the governor as its chief education officer.
The petition drive arose because its organizers are angry at how the State Board of Education handled the health standards issue, which involved heated disagreement among Nebraskans. But in reality, nothing is really broken about the current system. Did the board prevent public comment and refuse to hold multiple hearings at which Nebraskans could express their views? No. The board held numerous well-attended hearings. Did the board and education commissioner ram through policy changes as they saw fit, ignoring public input? No, they did not. The board wound up tabling the issue.
Had the board and commissioner overrode such accountability requirements, Nebraska would have something to fix. But such is not the case.
This petition campaign is in the same spirit of misguided recall efforts that sometimes arise in local government: A controversy over a public policy decision — rather than an official’s actual malfeasance — erupts, and angry residents mount a recall effort to toss out the incumbent officeholder. But if a recall were the proper step every time a sharp disagreement arose over policy decisions, Nebraska should be holding recalls almost constantly.
Instead, the sound way to provide needed accountability of public officials is through elections — and the members of the State Board of Education are elected. This rightly requires incumbent members to explain and defend how they have approached their duties. The voters then make up their minds at the ballot box in a collective, democratic decision. That is a far better way to determine whether a member of the board should be re-elected than by having the governor make the decision unilaterally.
Nebraska has a state Department of Education that performs its duties responsibly and efficiently. Department staff demonstrate respect for local authority and work constructively with our state’s remarkably wide range of school districts, from large, urbanized districts to small, rural ones. Matthew Blomstedt, the state education commissioner, is superbly well informed about school policy and Nebraska educational needs. He handles his duties with impressive dedication and professionalism. There is no need to make the commissioner and department staff mere agents of gubernatorial authority.
Nebraska governors are term-limited. So, how one governor might handle education policy might please critics of the state board, but the approach taken in the future by another governor might not please them at all. Plus, because schools are increasingly becoming battlegrounds in the culture wars, giving governors this power risks changing policies every few years for political, not educational, reasons.
Nebraskans should reject the radical overhaul this petition campaign would promote. The current accountability requirements, including elections, serve the public well.
Lincoln Journal Star. Nov. 28, 2021.
Editorial: UNL diversity commitment will help state grow in future
Earlier this month, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln unveiled “Commitment to Action,” a plan designed to address racial discrimination and disparity on campus and, ultimately, bring more students of color to the school, where they now dramatically underrepresented.
Predictably enough, the plan, which emerged from an 18-month process following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and the widespread protests that followed, was immediately assailed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and a host of Republican politicians who, again predictably, attacked the plan for things that are not in it.
Broadly speaking, the plan would create more support and outreach programs for students of color, develop new academic programs with diversity and inclusion in mind, reexamine policies and practices to ensure broader involvement from minority groups, review hiring practices and retention of employees from racial minority groups, encourage more inclusive recruitment and work with the Lincoln Police Department to “prevent poor treatment off campus” of minority students and faculty.
To say that such a plan is unnecessary is to ignore the racial reckoning triggered by last summer’s protests -- which happened in Lincoln, Omaha, Chadron and Harvard, among other Nebraska communities -- and brush off deeply troubling figures of higher education in the state.
According to the Nebraska Commission for Postsecondary Education, 56.5% of whites age 25-44 living and working in Nebraska have at least an associate’s degree. Among minorities, however, that attainment level is just 30.8% -- a gap ranking Nebraska third-worst in the country, a disparity about which the state must be concerned.
“Too many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not enroll in college and graduate, and those who do don’t see enough people like them in our faculty and administrative ranks,” wrote NU President Ted Carter, who implemented a similar plan to increase diversity in students and staff when he was superintendent at the U.S. Naval Academy.
That plan has succeeded, with more than half of the students in the class of 2023 either women or from minority groups, the enrollment more closely representing the nation’s population for the first time in the academy’s history.
The Nebraska plan, contrary to Ricketts’ assertion, is not “ideological indoctrination” nor would it “condition everyone to see others through the lens of race.”
In fact, it is Ricketts, NU Regent and GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Pillen and Sen. Julie Slama, all who have assaulted the plan, who are viewing it entirely through divisive racial politics, as they did with their attack on what they understand to be critical race theory.
In contrast, the true goal of the plan is, in Carter’s words, “making certain Nebraska is a place where everyone can succeed,” because it “is critical to maintaining our growth and competitiveness for future generations.”
For a governor whose stated intent is to “grow Nebraska,” this should be a shared priority.
Implementing “Commitment to Action” will be critical to making the university more diverse, inclusive and equitable -- which, rather than protecting privilege of current practices, should be the goal of every institution of higher learning.
North Platte Telegraph, Nov. 28, 2021.
Editorial: The hunt that brought Buffalo Bill national prominence
Before you get all caught up in Christmas shopping and celebrations, mark mid-January on your calendar.
That will be the 150th anniversary of a pivotal event that helped introduce America to William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody: the “royal buffalo hunt” by Russia’s Grand Duke Alexis near present-day Hayes Center.
Various local and national parties have shown interest in celebrating the milestone. The Telegraph wrote about Alexis’ hunt in some detail last Jan. 8. (Search “Grand Duke Alexis” on nptelegraph.com to read it.)
It remains unclear to what extent it’ll be observed here, at least during the Jan. 13-16 period when Alexis, Cody and Civil War Gens. George A. Custer and Philip Sheridan were together here in 1872.
West central Nebraskans know all too well how chancy their winter weather can be, though they’ve often been treated to a “January thaw” around that time over the decades.
Whether or not we see formal in-person celebrations of Alexis’ visit, folks who recognize Nebraska’s and North Platte’s debt to Buffalo Bill — and those who don’t — can find some enjoyment in looking back.
In those first years after the 1861-65 Civil War, the fourth son of Russian Czar Alexander II was one of the first foreign celebrities to visit and tour the United States with his host nation’s eyes upon him everywhere he went.
Alexis wanted to experience the “real” West — the herds of bison, the resident Native Americans, the vast prairies. The U.S. Army was determined to accommodate him.
Custer, seven years past his youthful Civil War heroics and four years away from his infamous death at the Little Bighorn, would rather have had the grand duke to himself based on his behavior during and after the Nebraska visit.
But Alexis, a sportsman, also wanted to hunt the buffalo. Waiting for him, Custer and Sheridan at North Platte was nearby Fort McPherson’s resident guide, already known for his bison-hunting prowess.
Cody was 25 then. He had earned his nickname farther south, shooting bison to help feed Kansas Pacific Railroad track gangs.
He had achieved some notoriety “back east” as a U.S. 5th Cavalry scout and been publicized in a tall fashion by dime novelist Ned Buntline and more accuracy by New York Herald Publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr.
General Sheridan knew of Cody, too. So over Alexis’ four-day visit, it was Buffalo Bill’s job to locate bison herds and lead the Russian prince to them during their four-day stay at “Camp Alexis” near Red Willow Creek.
Our story from last January also includes full-page images from Bennett’s Herald, carrying dispatches from an unnamed “special correspondent” testifying to Cody’s role.
Alexis continued west with Custer after the hunt. A few months later, Cody headed east to Chicago and then New York.
After attending a stage melodrama in the latter city based on Buntline’s fanciful Buffalo Bill stories, Buntline persuaded him to appear in the show. As himself. Kind of.
Show business would dominate the last 45 years of Cody’s life. His 1882 “Old Glory Blowout” in North Platte presaged “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” a year later.
But some historians see an even earlier Wild West antecedent in Alexis’ hunt — which included a visit from Brulé Lakota led by Spotted Tail — and Cody’s part in it.
In 1872, North Platte already was known as the transcontinental railroad’s first “Hell on Wheels” in its first months of 1866-67.
The year after Cody’s 1917 death, the city opened the Great War precursor of the World War II Canteen that spread its name worldwide through millions of service members.
But it was Buffalo Bill who first brought North Platte to true nationwide and international attention. The four-day VIP buffalo hunt a century and a half ago helped pave the way.
It’s worth remembering Alexis, and his local hunting guide, once we’ve put away the Christmas decorations. At least for a bit.