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Is Nebraska up for the challenge?

• Neil Ruddock

NEbraskaHall of Famer and Nebraska native Bob Gibson once said the two most important things in life are good friends and a strong bullpen. Having watched Nebraskans flood Notre Dame’s football stadium—and its post-game Masses—in September of 2000, I can vouch for their warm-heartedness.

Then I look at the state’s test scores. And I wonder whether its students, i.e. its economic bullpen, are prepared to take the ball.

The Nebraska Legislature is apparently curious as well. State spending over the past 20 years is on par with the rest of the country (hint: up). Meanwhile the line graphs on reading and math scores are nearly as flat as the state’s northern and southern borders. Will this be allowed to continue?

Nebraska’s leaders could yield to pressures to simply provide more money, more time; to solve society’s problems of parenting and focus on poverty first.

Twenty years of the funding-only approach hasn’t worked. Unless there is a magic wand hiding in the State Capitol’s hallways, it’s doubtful the parenting challenge will be solved in Lincoln. And there is ample data to show that requiring schools to focus on reading in grades K-3 can be a building block to addressing poverty—not an afterthought.

Bills being debated in the legislature right now would also bring transparency to school performance with A-F school grades. These grades are not all-inclusive judgments of schools but a starting point for local conversations, leverage for a principal to get that parent and community engagement needed for improvement (even if it requires a few intense school board meetings). Charter schools are another option that needs to be on the table, especially for those most in need.

We know these policy changes work. Florida’s minority population is more than double that of Nebraska’s, and has nearly ten percent more low-income students in its public schools. Yet the Sunshine State has surpassed Nebraska in 4th grade reading scores over the past several years. Florida is now in the top five among students graduating with a passing score on Advanced Placement exams, and its dropout rate is at an all-time low.

Opponents have suggested that education is complex, that students bring many challenges of modern society into the classroom with them and that a single law cannot fix everything.

There is indeed complexity in education. It is especially complex when one attempts to explain how leaving current policies intact and simply adding more dollars will produce better results.

Florida still has more work to do. The state’s education leadership ranks have seen almost as much turnover as my beloved (if downright pitiful) Cleveland Browns. The state has risen above national averages, but is aiming for the top.  Look to the Midwest and you’ll find another state that is not settling. Indiana enacted many Florida-style policies over the past few years, and was one of the few states to make gains in 4th and 8th grade reading and math on the most recent round of NAEP tests.

2014 is the beginning of a journey for Nebraska. Every state capitol I have been to (hint: many) is filled with legislators, business leaders and constituents who care deeply about their public schools and the hard-working men and women who work there. Emotions run high, and the conversation will likely get harder in Nebraska before it gets easier.

Nebraska will need to decide if it is up to the challenge. They will need to decide if the current system is worthy of the men and women who work within it to serve kids. Change will be difficult but is doable. The sun will continue to rise…and maybe, just maybe, Nebraska’s students will too.

About the author

Neil Ruddock

Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at