Our Historical Commitment to Public Education

Celebrating its 150th year in 2017, the Nebraska State Education Association is the oldest professional organization in Nebraska. This association, throughout most of its history, has consisted of professors, teachers, principals, college administrators and school superintendents, who have provided both the professional and political leadership to secure the foundations of public education in this state. It is a continuing legacy for all Nebraskans.

Are our public schools and colleges a legacy that we can take for granted?  Education was not a certainty early in our history.  In the fall of 1867, concerned citizens gathered in Brownville to create the principles that continue to guide efforts to foster good schools in Nebraska.  It would not be an easy task.  Less than 40 percent of school-age children attended school at that time.  There were virtually no standards for becoming a teacher and no standards for schools or school instruction.  With all of these issues as a background, this first meeting adopted a commitment to continue “…elevating the profession of teaching and the interests of schools in Nebraska.” Over the ensuing 150 years, that commitment has framed a continual battle to maintain high standards for our schools…and to preserve the essential opportunity and character of public education.

Continual Division

For those who understood the importance of education to our state, the problems must have seemed overwhelming.  There were not enough experienced teachers and no law on teacher training or qualifications. In fact, there were simply not enough teachers of any qualification.  On average, in the early days of statehood, there was only one teacher for every 61 students in Nebraska.  

Ironically, the lack of any legal requirement that children attend school at all probably eased the problem of teacher availability. The teacher shortage plagued many communities, but so did the inaccessibility of schools, especially high schools.  For rural students, free public high schools would not become a reality until the 1920s. That decision was preceded by a Nebraska Supreme Court case to determine whether it was even constitutional to provide access to tuition-free high schools for rural students.  That issue of “who pays the bill” for education in Nebraska has been a continual dividing point.  
Is public education finally “safe” in Nebraska?  The record of excellence of Nebraska schools is clear, but there are significant issues that continue to promise future threats to our public schools.

The issue of “who pays” for our public community schools, colleges, and universities continues to be a significant factor in funding for education.  Local communities may be willing to significantly invest in local, community schools, but are often far less willing to help fund schools for other communities, for mobile students in higher education, or for local communities of “other” students (“Dreamers,” foster children, transient students, etc.).  This problem is intensified by the growing dissimilarity, in terms of ethnicity, race, or language, between students and teachers.  This difference also explains, in part, the growing “flight” from public schools to home-schools, private schools, and “charter” schools.

A Dangerous Issue

An equally dangerous issue is the elimination of the “fixed costs” of full-time employees. Now estimated to teach more than 60 percent of all college courses in America, part-time staff members in higher education teach with low pay, no continuing contract, and no benefits. This model threatens the integrity of higher education as a stable learning community and, as a cost-saving model, may be expected to spread to K-12 education.

Our public schools are the foundation of our communities and our state. The meaning of our continuing commitment to public education is simple.  The NSEA will always fight to improve and protect public education.  With other friends of education, we have done that for 150 years.  Can we count on you, too?

This is Dr. Christiansen’s 130th – and last – column for The Voice.  On February 28th he leaves to return to his first love: research and teaching.