State Board of Education candidates seek to shape future of Nebraska schools

Charter schools, experience and the backing of the Nebraska state teachers union are factors in two contested races for the Nebraska State Board of Education.

Democrats Patsy Koch Johns and Lisa Fricke head into the Nov. 8 election backed by the union.

The union represents about 28,000 public school teachers and other educational professionals across Nebraska.

Republicans Stephanie Bohlke-Schulte and Glen Flint, the incumbent, received neither the backing nor the financial help of the union.

In District 2, Flint seeks to retain the seat to which then-Gov. Dave Heineman appointed him in March 2014.

Flint said he favors vouchers to give parents more control over their children’s education. He said he supports allowing charter schools into Nebraska.

The state has no law authorizing them.

“If we could get one of those top-performing charters in here, and see how it goes, I think people would be happy with the results,” he said.

Critics say charters siphon money from traditional schools, but Flint said school dollars belong to the students.

“If we could take the same money and come up with better results for the students, we ought to do that,” he said.

Flint advocates for competency-based education, an approach in which a student works at his own pace and moves ahead as he demonstrates mastery of academic content.

“Instead of measuring seat time, we’re actually measuring how much you learned,” Flint said.

Flint said he would push for ways to identify students with disabilities at a younger age to provide them help earlier. He said he also wants to make option enrollment transfers more accommodating for families.

“Give parents the benefit of the doubt they know what they’re doing,” he said.

Fricke said there are a few good charter schools, “but there are so many more that start out great and then they fail, or they’re fraudulent, or mismanaged.” She said charter schools don’t have an elected school board and are often for-profit enterprises.

“I want to keep our tax dollars invested in our students in public schools,” she said.

She said her top priority is to keep public schools strong.

She said her 36 years of experience in the public schools setting — working with parents, administrators and the community — better prepare her for the job.

Fricke said she would be an advocate for early childhood education, which she said is proven to build literacy in kids.

“We know from research that one of the best practices is early childhood education and getting them going before they begin kindergarten,” she said.

She said she seeks to raise the level of academic achievement and improve accessibility for all kids to a quality education.

“I want to serve the public schools that provided me such a rewarding career,” she said.

In District 1, Koch Johns and Bohlke-Schulte each touts her experience as an educator.

Koch Johns said she’s been “on the front lines” of education more than 40 years. She said she has been working directly with parents and kids in urban and rural Nebraska.

“Not only have I worked in the educational system but I’ve been really active in this community of Lincoln for over 16½ years and trying to share my talents and my time, not only to create an environment in the schools but in the community, where all students get the opportunity for success.”

She said she’s particularly interested in how poverty affects children.

To that end, she directed a video documentary project for Nebraska Loves Public Schools called “Poverty: Not a Choice.” The award-winning video featured youths speaking on the impact of poverty.

She said she would protect public schools and strive to make schools inclusive, innovative and high-quality.

Bohlke-Schulte said she is uniquely qualified to be on state board because of her 26 years in education, particularly 10 years as a principal.

“I have a lot of experience with testing, assessment, setting goals, standards, aligning curriculum and assessment to match the standards,” she said. “That’s very unique, plus two terms on a local school board.”

She said she has extensive experience with the kinds of things the board deals with.

“Coupled with that, then, is the fact that I have a conservative, family-orientation and philosophy on life that will guide the kinds of decisions I make.”

She said she’s not advocating any “pet projects.”

“I want to see the best possible education provided to all students in Nebraska, and will work to do that,” she said.

Incumbents Rachel Wise, District 3, and John Witzel, District 4, are running unopposed.