Lincoln on Education: Choosing Nebraska Values
by Sally Herrin
I'm not from here. People used to say, when I expressed certain strongly held opinions, She's not from here. I come from the South where we say, Bless her heart. Both comments mean the same thing: They know not what they do.
I am Nebraskan by choice. I came to attend UNL in 1976 and fell in love with this place. I have made Nebraska my home these forty years. I raised a child here, and I own one home in South Lincoln for now and another in Wyuka Cemetery for later. You could say I'm all in.
Like most, I treasure our unique Nebraska public institutions: publicly-owned power, the Unicameral Legislature, the system of natural resources districts and more. The Good Life of this state is largely the product of our public institutions, themselves the product of the best values which Nebraskans as citizens hold in common.
The greatest Nebraska values are community and fairness, with everything those values entail: cooperation, good will toward others, careful stewardship of resources, respect for knowledge and honesty, and resilience. Extremes of cold and heat, drought and blizzards and relentless wind drive the practice of community in flatwater country. Native Americans and European immigrants alike learned survival requires those who live here to see that we are all in this together and to live accordingly.
No Nebraska institution expresses the values of community and fairness better than our public school system. Grace Abbott, champion of child welfare and the first US woman nominated for a Cabinet position, was born in Grand Island and inducted into the state Hall of Fame on the very day I arrived in 1976. Abbott said justice for all children is "the high ideal in a democracy." While Nebraska is not among the wealthiest states, our public schools consistently offer a good education to all Nebraska children, regardless of zip code. Typically, Nebraska public schools have low pupil to teacher ratios, low dropout and teen pregnancy rates, high test scores and high graduation rates.
Nationally, the so-called Greatest Generation of Americans--which survived the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and won World War II--was the product of public education, through elementary and high school, and on the GI Bill many attended public universities, a collective public education that drove the most productive economy and largest middle class this world has ever seen.
The success of public education and its central role in fostering the values we hold dear is, sadly, not valued by some. The Walton and Koch families spend lavish private dollars in targeted states to dismantle public school funding systems under the guise of support for so-called "choice." These outsiders just don't get who we are in Nebraska. (In the South, we call their kind Carpet-baggers.)
Even sadder, the Governor doesn't get Nebraskans either. Ricketts, who spent some $16 million of his own money getting to be governor, is Nebraska born, but his agenda--like that of the Koch and Walton families--is a rich man's agenda. Despite the looming state revenue shortfall, Ricketts is calling for lowering income taxes--foolishness on the face of it and benefiting primarily wealthy people, himself included. (The folks at the bottom of the top bracket, whom Ricketts invoked in his State of the State address, would save pizza money under the governor's proposal, while executives at Ameritrade, ConAgra and Union Pacific would save the kind of cash that pays for second vacation homes and elite college tuition. How fair is that?)
Governor Ricketts, the Kochs and the Waltons are adding insult to injury this Unicameral session with efforts to defund public schools: LB608 (vouchers), LB630 (charter schools), and LB662 to institute a stark, problematic grading system for schools and bring in high-stakes testing. (The governor also wants to cut dollars to higher education.) Ricketts, a child of privilege himself, is out of step with the values most Nebraskans share. He may be from here, but he knows not what he does. Bless his heart.