Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Nebraska’s state education commissioner, Doug Christensen, is radiating a lot of angst these days. As our state ed department’s chief compliance officer, he’s in a fit over the U.S. Department of Education’s recent rebuke. The feds are saying that, under his leadership, Nebraska is not in compliance with federal education regulations on school quality, and it’s going to cost us some of our Title I federal funding.

The brouhaha all stems from the goofy accountability system that Christensen designed and railroaded across the state, and its inability to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

www.nde.state.ne.us/documents/NCLBASSMTMRDMO70506.pdf for Christensen’s response to the feds, and their letter on www.nde.state.ne.us/documents/USDEASSMTLTR070506.pdf

Christensen has planted his feet and locked Nebraska in to his vision of what accountability should be. It doesn’t matter that the feds, plus most objective observers whose salaries are not paid by public schools, disagree that his system is the best. He has the power, and that’s that. Meanwhile, the public will, and the fortunes of the low-income children whose educations Title I funding is supposed to be helping, don’t matter one bit.

So what do we do now? There’s a simple answer: give him a nice buyout contract equal to the money the feds are withholding, and reorganize the way we govern K-12 education in Nebraska. That’s a cool $126,741 for Christensen, free and clear, plus his pension, which will be sizeable. He’s at retirement age. I bet he’d take it.

And in the long run, having an elected state schools chief would save us many, many times that amount. So we’d all be better off.

In a perfect world, we’d also withdraw from federal funding and get out from under the feducrats entirely . . . but let’s take one constructive step at a time.

We need to elect our state schools chief, pay him (or her) less money than we do now, and put him (or her) on an equal footing with the State Board of Education, instead of having an appointed state schools chief cracking the whip over the elected state board members, rendering them mere rubber stamps for whatever policies he (or she) would like to impose. That’s how we got into this embarrassing mess with our wacky assessment scandal.

It’s an opportune time: Nebraska has a black eye over our noncompliance with NCLB, the mess over OPS, the embarrassment over the Class I schools educratic terrorism, the shame of the equity lawsuits, the decades of a persistent and despicable chasm between educational attainment based on skin color and family income, and ongoing woes regarding escalating school spending and tax increases.

The natives are restless. Change is in the air. The best way to restore power to the people is to make their officials accountable to them, by making those officials elected, not appointed.

Last time I checked, Christensen’s salary was the highest among state government employees except for a few state psychiatrists – which paints a picture in itself. I think he was making around $125,000, but that was a few years ago. Plenty of people would be delighted to have his job for half as much. It would still be far more than most teachers make in this state, and certainly, the state schools chief should be making less than the governor and other constitutional officers, instead of so much more.

Most of all, instead of having an appointed state schools chief, we really need to be electing that person from now on. It’s long past time. All we’ve had in the last 25 years is more and more tangential regulation and more and more nonacademic mumbo-jumbo, because people who are insulated from the public – such as appointed educrats – can’t help but O.D. on compliance issues instead of education issues.

That’s what educrats do – obsess over regs and compliance.

But what we NEED is someone who will obsess over why poor kids aren’t doing as well in school and what we can do for them, and how we can save our priceless country schools, and how we can get more bang for the bucks that Nebraska taxpayers are forking over to our schools.

Those are huge issues, of crucial importance to the public, that Christensen hasn’t addressed. Why? Because he’s been so busy arm-wrestling with the feds over NCLB, and his own ego trip over his own weird design for Nebraska’s “study your own navel” assessment system.

No offense to Christensen, but if we want elected citizens to maintain control over our schools, we need someone who’s accountable to us in that job, instead of someone whose job description calls for him (or her) to just think up more regs and schmooze with other educrats and union wonks, with no need to give a rip what the people who pay his (or her) salary really want from our schools.

It’s unclear whether Christensen knows that the concerns he communicates to Nebraskans – standards, assessments, all-day kindergarten, globalism, increasing loss of privacy and increasing data collection on individual students and teachers – are all boilerplate for a nationalized school system. They’re the same issues being parroted all across the country. They’re not addressing Nebraska’s unique school needs, or the real challenges we face, at all. That’s what we get for having a state schools chief whose allegiances are to other state schools chiefs and feducrats, rather than listening to what Nebraska policymakers and the public want and need.

Christensen is in a no-win situation; we need to create a system of school leadership in which we all can win. We elect the governor; we elect the state treasurer; we elect all kinds of people to do all kinds of jobs on state, county and local levels. Why, oh why, wouldn’t we elect the person in charge of what may be our important governmental function, which is to preside over K-12 education?

We really need to elect the person who monitors and regulates our schools, because Big Government and special-interest groups, notably the labor unions, have stolen away local control from our school boards, local teachers and, most regrettably, local parents, taxpayers and voters.

Are we going to stand for that? Or do we have the guts to give Christensen a well-earned gold watch and a very nice retirement nest egg . . . and go back to the books on what we really want in the way of school leadership?

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