‘No’ to Charters, ‘Rule of 95’

NSEA Members Urge Defeat of Charters, Oppose Lessening of Retirement Plan

More than 150 public school supporters rallied against a charter school bill on March 14 – and the legislative hearing that followed lasted nearly eight hours.

The rally drew attention to privatization schemes hidden in the charter movement, and to the cuts to public education that would result.

More than a dozen people – including NSEA members and three past Teachers of the Year – testified against LB630, which would enable charters.

NSEA members also stood against proposals to reduce benefits in the state’s teacher retirement plan. Sen. Mark Kolterman’s LB415 would turn the current Rule of 85 into a Rule of 90 – or more realistically into a Rule of 95 — for new hires.

“LB415 clearly diminishes retirement benefits for school employees,” said NSEA President Nancy Fulton. “At a time when enrollment in teacher education programs has plummeted, in a profession that is mentally and physically exhausting, we must strive to make the profession more attractive, not less attractive.”

Otherwise, all education eyes at the Legislature were on Sen. Tyson Larson’s LB630 – the charter school bill.

LB630 would create a category of public schools called “independent public schools” (IPS). Charters would fall under the authority of the “Independent Public School Authorizing and Accountability Commission,” outside the auspices of the Nebraska

Department of Education. Charters would be exempt from accreditation standards like instructional hours, curriculum, grade levels, graduation requirements and other basics. LB630 also does not require that a charter teacher hold a teaching certificate.

Rather than experiment on our children with the uncertainty that charters bring, Fulton suggested the tried and true path.

“Let’s get serious about doing what works: resourcing our neighborhood public schools so students have the support they need, more one-on-one attention, inviting classrooms, and a well-rounded curriculum,” she said.

LB630 has not been prioritized but remains a long-term threat to public school stability. Here is the status of other legislative issues:

Retirement Concerns and Another Reason to Leave

LB415, tagged as a priority by the Legislature’s Retirement Committee, drew stern opposition. Student members alarmed by the bill’s provisions also took a stand.

LB415 would change the current retirement “Rule of 85” – which allows school employees to retire at age 55 if their age and years of service total a minimum of 85. For teachers hired after July 1, 2017, Kolterman’s plan would move the retirement age to 60, which effectively creates a “Rule of 95” or higher, as most educators have been teaching for 35 years – or more – by the time they reach age 60.

Jason Hayes, NSEA’s director of Public Policy and Research, told senators that the teacher retirement plan is on track to be 100 percent funded by 2040, if not sooner. Kolterman’s plan is to secure additional plan savings to cover a projected shortfall of $50 million in 2020.

“Changes do not need to be made this session, and they certainly should not be done in haste,” said Hayes. “The plan has more than $10 billion in assets, so the projected shortfall of $50 million represents only about one-half of one percent of the plan’s total assets.”

Denton Beacom, a senior at Wayne State College and president of NSEA’s Student Education Association of Nebraska (SEAN) affiliate, sounded a more alarming note.

“I believe its passage would further discourage young people from entering the teaching profession,” Beacom said.

He said that in 2003, there were 7,500 education candidates in Nebraska colleges and universities. Ten years later, there were only 3,500, a 53 percent drop. “Consider that tuition continues to rise, that teachers with bachelor’s degrees earn far less than their private sector counterparts, and that student loans are difficult to repay on a teacher’s salary, it is no wonder that there is a teacher and substitute teacher shortage,” he said.

LB415 would also eliminate all exceptions to a rule that requires educators to sit out 180 days after retirement before returning to the classroom to teach or substitute. Hayes said a 120-day window would help ease a chronic shortage of substitutes and would mirror the 120-day provision in place for the state retirement plans for judges, state patrol, and state or county employees.

Hayes argued against language that requires teachers who sign early retirement pacts to sit out of the profession for three years. He said some early retirements are meager, and may cover no more than health insurance.

Weakening Teacher Certification

NSEA testified against LB568, Sen. Steve Erdman’s plan to allow anyone with little more than a high school diploma to helm a classroom. LB568 is Erdman’s solution to the substitute shortage.

NSEA Organizational Specialist Jay Sears said allowing high school graduates to “fill in” for certificated teachers would be a day of learning lost for students.

“Teaching is a complex profession,” said Sears. “Some researchers have said that teachers make more important decisions during a day of teaching than does a heart surgeon. Would we trust a 21-year-old high school graduate to perform our triple by-pass surgery? Why would we allow the same person to teach our children?”

Sears said the State Board of Education has already taken steps to address the shortage with changes to Rule 21 that would remove the 90-day annual limit on substitute teaching for those with a state permit, and would expand from 45 days to 90 days the limit on those holding local substitute permits. The changes need only the signature of the governor to move forward.

A Win for Community Colleges

At the request of the Nebraska Community College Association (NCCA), Sen. Roy Baker pulled LB124 from the schedule. It would have extended the two-year probation period for newly hired state community college professors to three years. NSEA opposed LB124.

Earlier, four members of the Education Committee and Sen. Baker agreed to an amendment, at NSEA’s urging, that required each community college board to adopt policies for evaluation that provided some level of due process prior to termination of a probationary employee. The NCCA, however, would not agree to the compromise, so Baker chose to delay the bill. The probationary period will remain two years and evaluation and termination processes will remain a local prerogative.

In Defense of State Aid

NSEA Director of Research Larry Scherer urged senators to oppose LB540, which would reduce the amount of state aid to schools and push funding onto property tax rolls.

LB540 creates a temporary adjustment to state aid and would force schools already at the $1.05 levy cap to cut programs, staff, technology and cash reserves. Scherer, one of the authors of the original state aid formula 30 years ago, urged senators to reconsider a review of the entire state aid system, as proposed in LB484.

“It is time to go back to the beginning and reinvent a structure for supporting public schools which results in a more balanced partnership between state and local funding for schools,” he said, in support of LB484.

Additional Tax Authority

Hayes told the Revenue Committee that LB326 should be adopted. LB326 would allow school districts to make up losses in state aid through an additional three-cent levy, on a two-thirds majority of the school board. With the Appropriations Committee-proposed state aid amount set at $98 million less than what the current state aid formula dictates, that additional funding authority would become crucial for many districts.

Hayes also urged support of LB633, which authorizes school districts to exceed budget authority for security and technology.

NSEA backed LB246, which provides additional budget authority for school districts that provide the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program for after school and weekend activities; and LB247, which allows school districts to exclude funds spent on cybersecurity from the levy cap.

Duplication of Anti-Duplication

Sears testified against Sen. Mike Groene’s LB569, which would create a task force to examine duplication of educational services by community colleges. Sears pointed out that the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education is tasked, in the state constitution, with doing just that.

LB569 would also end the ability of community colleges to levy a tax.

“Without adequate replacement revenues, community colleges will lose approximately 40 percent of their funding for operations,” said Sears. “Given the current deficit situation of the state, without the revenue capacity to support existing programs, it seems unlikely the Legislature will be able to find replacement revenues for community colleges.  Elimination of the levy for community colleges would jeopardize key programs needed for workforce development in the state.”

An ‘F’ for State Grading System

Sears told the Education Committee that LB662 would take Nebraska back to the failed tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act by giving each school building in Nebraska a letter grade.

Sears urged senators to allow the state’s locally developed Accountability for a Quality Education System, Today and Tomorrow (AQuESTT) to work.

“The report cards that are part of the AQuESTT accountability system clearly exceed the requirements of reporting information about student academic progress and school building and district improvement as required under ESSA,” he said.

The Right to Dues Deduction

NSEA President Nancy Fulton told senators that LB503, which targets teachers and denies the right for Association dues deduction through payroll, is an extreme example of government overreach.

“This subverts an educator’s relationship with his/her employer, and denies educators the freedom and ability to manage their own paycheck,” she said.

Dues deduction is no different than a United Way, YMCA savings bond, mortgage or other transfer.

“This raises the question as to whether LB503 is barefaced political retribution or whether supporters are biased against public employees in general. Legislation based on either perspective does not, and never will, make sound or sensible policy,” she said.