A Labor of Love

Engaging Policymakers a Priority — Unless Your Wife is in Labor, says Government Relations Chair

Some things just take precedence. Like your wife going into labor.

Jared Wagenknecht is in his third year as chair of NSEA’s Government Relations Committee, but he has yet to testify before a committee of the Nebraska Legislature. 

It isn’t that the Papillion-LaVista South High social studies teacher hasn’t tried to testify. In fact, he came within minutes of speaking against a charter school bill two years ago. He was in the Education Committee hearing room, awaiting a turn at the microphone. The bill had attracted a long list of speakers.

“I was there all afternoon. I was two people away from getting to talk, and my phone rings,” said Wagenknecht. “My wife was going into labor early.”

Wagenknecht was lined up behind Millard West High’s Tim Royers. He handed Royers copies of his testimony and sped to the hospital.

As Royers reached the head of the line, he handed Wagenknecht’s written testimony to a legislative clerk and told the committee why Wagenknecht had to leave.

Wagenknecht learned later that the committee chair said, “We’ve never heard that excuse before.”

Wagenknecht’s attempt to testify is a reminder why educators are, and should be, involved in discussions and decisions about policy that affects public education.

The birth of Wagenknecht’s child was both the reason he left early and why he was there in the first place – to make certain that his child, as well as all children, have access to a well-resourced public school and the public education that is guaranteed them by Nebraska’s constitution.

A ‘Huge Opportunity’

Wagenknecht said he regularly urges his students to get involved with groups that “advocate for things that you are passionate about.”

When he realized that he should set an example, he began to invest time as a Building Representative for the Papillion-LaVista Education Association. That eventually led to a seat on NSEA’s Government Relations Committee. 

“I kept saying ‘yes’ to things and ended up as chair of the committee,” he said.

The committee connects with and educates Association members about education policy action; connects members with policymakers; and educates elected officials about the workings and needs of public schools.

“It’s very important for members to be involved so that senators can hear and understand how their votes are going to affect teachers, students and our public schools,” said Wagenknecht.

With hundreds of legislative bills proposed each session, Wagenknecht said it is difficult even for state senators to stay abreast of every piece of legislation. That’s where NSEA’s Government Relations Committee, and members who subscribe to NSEA’s Capitol Update, play important roles.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to reach out to the people making the laws that affect us and to tell them ‘this is how this law is going to affect us. This is what this bill is going to do in a good way, or in a bad way,’” said Wagenknecht.

Conversely, those on the committee are expected to reach out to members in their local Association and legislative district to keep all members informed of policy debates and changes.

A Better Piece of Legislation

That outreach is vitally important. Wagenknecht cites as an example a bill introduced by Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan in 2017. LB651 proposed to flunk any child who was not reading at grade level by third grade.

NSEA members and leaders voiced strong opposition at every opportunity, including at an Education Committee hearing. Yet Linehan mustered enough votes to pull the bill from committee for consideration by the full Legislature. Time expired before further action, and the bill carried over to 2018.

During the interim, NSEA worked with Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks and Linehan to improve LB651. The two senators toured the state, sat in classrooms, met with teachers, and eventually the retention language was discarded and was replaced with best-practice reading instruction language. LB651 was passed into law with NSEA’s support.

“That bill started out as not a very good deal for kids, but by us working with senators to give them the perspective of educators it ended up as a much better piece of legislation,” he said.

A second example of educator collaboration arrived via LB295 and LB804. Combined, the bills would have used poor policy to divert substantial state revenues away from public schools.

Particularly onerous was LB295’s voucher scheme, a tax change that would have allowed corporations and the wealthy to donate cash to private school “scholarship” funds. Donors could have claimed deductions, and in some cases, have profited in the process. That plan would have cost the state up to $10 million in revenues in the first years, and more later as the program grew.

LB804 would have cost the state another $19 million – to start – by allowing a tax break for 529 College Savings Plan donations later used as tuition to private K-12 schools. Combined, LB295 and LB804 would have cost nearly $30 million, threatening state aid to education cuts.

“That was really a big issue for members, and a lot of people were really concerned,” said Wagenknecht.

Insights Benefit Everyone

As Government Relations Committee chair, Wagenknecht leads regular video conference calls to the more than 50-member committee, which includes at least one member from each of Nebraska’s 49 legislative districts. Those calls are more frequent when the Legislature is in session.

The calls update members on legislation and NSEA’s involvement in policy discussions and debate. Wagenknecht acts as moderator and facilitator.

“I think being on the committee you begin to understand just how much is going on,” he said. “It’s not unusual for the committee to track and watch well more than 100 education-related bills.

“It’s almost impossible for the committee to keep track of all of them. That’s why it’s awesome that we have organizational staff doing that work to track and monitor those bills,” he said.

As a teacher of government and politics, sociology and current issues, the inner workings and the process is of interest to Wagenknecht. 

“Hearing the insights from NSEA staff is huge – more than you can get from other sources,” he said.

Those insights, and the follow up with other Association members and with lawmakers, help to build a foundation of good education-related policy. That benefits everyone – especially children.