Chambers, education groups clash on superintendent requirements

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February 5, 2013 - 5:39pm

A proposal to let people become school superintendents in Nebraska without being a teacher first became a point of contention between Sen. Ernie Chambers and education groups Tuesday. Fred Knapp has this legislative update.

Right now, being a superintendent in Nebraska requires someone to have been a teacher for two years first. Chambers said former President Dwight Eisenhower hadn’t been a classroom teacher before being Columbia University president, and the commissioners of the NBA and NFL had not been basketball or football players either.

"To say that a person, just for the sake of appearance, has to have spent two years in a classroom -- perhaps at a time so far in the dim recesses of that person’s history he or she doesn’t even remember what was going on -- will let you know that it is an empty, meaningless requirement," he said.

Chambers said schools are failing to teach poor and minority students, and the current requirements are obstacles to people who could be good superintendents. "I’m not even opposed to someone who had a military background – not that they’re going to bring militarism into the classroom, but they understand the concept of accountability," he said.

Education groups opposed the bill. "I think the way that we’re doing it has served the 249 districts that we’re working with, and I’m not aware of a shortage of candidates for these jobs," said John Bonaiuto representing school boards and administrators.

Brian Halstead, representing the Department and State Board of Education, said the two-year teaching requirement makes sense. "Having knowledge about what it takes to teach -- what needs to go on in classrooms every day with good teachers -- is one of the fundamental things that the superintendent needs to know, what the principals at the midlevel need to know, because it’s about students being educated, like Sen. Chambers said," he declared.

And Jay Sears of the Nebraska State Education Association – the teachers union – said the requirements are needed to maintain professionalism. "Professions have standards. And we have standards in the education profession – especially for teachers, for administrators, whether they are principals, assistant principals, or superintendents – and they are trained to do the business of: education," he said.

Chambers told members of the Education Committee he knew they would kill his bill, explaining later that he thinks committee members are too heavily influenced by education groups. But he vowed to be persistent, and admitted to a political motive as well.

"I’ve got four years to get this done. And if I don’t get it done in four, I can take another shot in four years. And that will make the NSEA have heartburn and heart attacks, because I found out how hard they were striving to keep me from coming back to the Legislature," he said.

Chambers said he was referring to fundraising appeals NSEA sent out on behalf of his opponent, then- Sen. Brenda Council, even after she had borrowed more than $63,000 from her campaign funds for gambling. Council pleaded guilty to filing false campaign reports, and Chambers defeated her by a 2-1 margin last November.

Asked about Chambers statement about giving NSEA heartburn, Sears said "We knew that he would." But, Sears added, "Sen. Chambers is usually good on education issues, so it’s not an issue for us."

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