Teachers Affecting Policy

by NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell

If you’ve read this column before, you know that one of my favorite phrases is “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu!” as I speak of the importance of teacher voice in decision making.  

This fall and over the winter break I had the privilege of seeing two different groups of NSEA members exercise their teacher voice, affecting policy development for teachers across the state.

Conversations with the Commissioner

Last spring, we were working closely with Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt on COVID-19-related events. He mentioned that he was meeting regularly with administrators across the state to discuss the rapidly changing COVID-19 landscape. NSEA President Jenni Benson asked him to also meet with teachers across the state; she knew that it was important for classroom practitioners to be able to share directly with the commissioner and his staff the impact of COVID-19 on their classrooms, colleagues and students.

Teachers across the state submitted their names for consideration. The commissioner selected 15 NSEA members from Chadron to Omaha and met with them regularly this fall, inviting his staff to also participate and learn directly from practitioners. Questions were posed to the group and they were divided into small groups to discuss their perspectives.

One of the positive outcomes of these conversations was reported in October – the commissioner announced that school districts could reduce their instructional hours up to 12 hours per quarter (48 hours this school year) and devote that time to professional learning, staff work time, or to connect with parents. Learn more about Blomstedt’s guidance at: http://bit.ly/ndeguide2021

While this group grew from the 2020 COVID -19 crisis, we have encouraged Blomstedt to continue this “kitchen cabinet” to be able to hear regularly and directly from educators about how policy from NDE can positively affect our kids and classrooms.

LB623: The Remote Instruction Act

Meg Mandy, legislative aide to Sen. Tony Vargas, contacted NSEA in November and asked for NSEA input on legislation Vargas wanted to develop regarding remote learning. As the use of remote learning becomes more prevalent across Nebraska for a multitude of reasons, key concerns have risen about ensuring equitable education for all students engaged in remote learning, whether that is by choice or because of district action.

In December, NSEA staff met with Mandy and Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda and Scott Packer from the Education Rights Counsel, a non-profit organization dedicated to education equity. As we listened to the ideas being discussed, it became evident that we needed the voices of those who were actually teaching during the pandemic to bring their crucial perspective to the table. Jenni turned to her mental Rolodex of contacts (we often joke that she is just two degrees of separation from every Nebraskan) and compiled a group of educators to work on the development of this policy.

By the end of December, a dozen NSEA members met for about five hours with Eynon-Kokrda, Packer and Mandy regarding their remote learning experiences. The knowledge and expertise of these members contributed to the creation of a framework for remote learning legislation that would ensure that regardless of location (urban, suburban, rural), core standards related to areas such as instructional pedagogy, consistent access and hours of actual instruction would be followed so that any student engaged in remote learning is offered the same high quality education offered in the in-person environment. The group also made it clear that when leveraging the benefits of remote instruction, we do not simply attempt to re-create the classroom environment in a remote setting.

They began by discussing what constitutes various modalities of learning including in-person learning, virtual learning, distance learning and remote learning. The group then deliberated in small groups on a series of questions that explored access, finding, technology, broadband internet, instructional strategies, professional development, funding, synchronous and asynchronous instruction, mandated subjects of bargaining and more. At the end of the day Sen. Vargas joined the group to listen and explore some of these points.  

On Jan. 20, Vargas introduced LB623, the Remote Instruction Act. It’s comforting to know that teachers were treated as the experts in the development of this piece of legislation.

Now It’s Your Turn

In the Nebraska Unicameral it is often said that the second house is the people and their voices are heard through the committee process. Every bill introduced must have an open hearing with open public testimony. Hearings have run from a matter of minutes with few testifiers to many hours with scores of testifiers.

With COVID-19, this legislative session will be unique. Whatever the final look of the new hearing processes, it is crucial that teacher voices are heard. We will ask you, just as we asked those educators noted above, to lend your experience and knowledge to pass legislation that will make schools stronger or to stop bills that will harm public schools.

We will ask you to make calls, write letters and perhaps even meet with senators so that they understand how the legislation will impact YOUR students and classroom. Even the best of intentions can go awry when policy development is devoid of the practitioner perspective.