State senators Myron Dorn, Steve Erdman, Dave Murman, Steve Halloran and Robert Clements lead a news conference in the Nebraska State Capitol. Erdman holds papers in his hand while Murman speaks at a center podium.
State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil (center) speaks at a news conference calling for an investigation into the Nebraska Department of Education on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. Murman, along with State Sens. Myron Dorn, Steve Erdman, Steve Halloran and Robert Clements (left to right) led the news conference. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

Five state senators are formally calling for an investigation into the Nebraska Department of Education for allegedly using COVID-19 relief funds to promote critical race theory.

At the Nebraska State Capitol on Monday, Oct. 17, State Sens. Dave Murman of Glenvil, Steve Erdman of Bayard, Steve Halloran of Hastings, Robert Clements of Elmwood and Myron Dorn of Adams announced the investigation. Dorn had not been announced initially as part of the group calling for an investigation, but he stood beside the quartet throughout the news conference.

Murman said the investigation centers on Launch Nebraska, an online resource hub for teachers to help schools recover from COVID-19, and an outbound link that — after a couple of clicks — had directed visitors to a culturally responsive education hub and then a “CRT Toolkit,” short for critical race theory.

This includes a PDF titled “Winning Racial Justice in Our Schools: Resisting the Right Wing Attacks on Critical Race Theory.” These links have since been removed.

The Department of Education has received federal relief money, with some going toward this resource, Murman said. After a year of operation, he argued the site has “shifted its focus to left-wing agenda items completely foreign to Nebraska public schools before the pandemic.”

“It has become clear that the Nebraska Department of Education and Launch Nebraska have gone off the rails from the original intent of this program. That’s why I’m calling for a legislative investigation into the Nebraska Department of Education,” Murman said. 

“Unfortunately, bureaucrats at the Nebraska Department of Education have decided Nebraska children would be better served if their time was spent learning to become activists and talking about woke gender theory,” Murman added. “This needs to end, and it needs to end now.”

The department’s response
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David Jespersen, the communications director for the Nebraska Department of Education, speaks to reporters following a news conference by five state senators announcing an investigation into his department on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. Jespersen said the governor’s office reached out to the department in June with a problem regarding a particular link, and the department later removed it. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

David Jespersen, the director of communications at the Nebraska Department of Education, attended the senators’ news conference and said none of the senators had reached out with their concerns.

Instead, it was the governor’s office in June that had reached out about the culturally responsive education link, Jespersen said.

“We did our own extra vetting of that situation,” Jespersen said. “We agreed that that was something that was not what we were trying to put out for our teachers, and we actually removed the link back in June.”

To his knowledge, Jespersen said nothing about critical race theory is mentioned on the department’s website. And following the interaction with the governor’s office, no one else contacted the department with further concerns on the matter.

Jespersen said state senators regularly reach out with ideas or concerns, and the department welcomes those interactions as well as comments from anyone in the community.

Investigation timeline

Murman told reporters he would like the investigation to start as soon as possible, with the Legislature’s Education Committee — of which he is a member — a good place to take the lead. He also read statements in support from State Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Rita Sanders of Bellevue, both members of the Education Committee.

However, with the election on Nov. 8 and the Legislature out of session, Murman acknowledged the investigation may not start until January when the Legislature reconvenes.

Murman said the investigation should find out how the PDF could be accessed through Launch Nebraska, what statutory authority the department was acting under, what state resources or taxpayer funds were used, as well as what other legislative solutions could be used “to restore the dignity and trust in the Department of Education and our public schools.”

He noted other states have passed legislation to ban critical race theory or comprehensive sex education — another controversy that befell the Department of Education in 2021. There have also been calls to eliminate the Nebraska Department of Education.

“We’re going to follow the facts, and wherever that leads, that’s probably what we will promote,” Murman told reporters, not indicating a particular legislative solution.

Jespersen told reporters he doesn’t see the investigation impacting the department, but he is interested to see what investigation they’d like to do.

Culturally responsive education

Halloran said whether the topic is culturally responsive education or critical race theory, it’s the same. 

​​“We can change the name of it, we can put a different title on the pig, we can put lipstick on the pig, but it’s still critical race theory,” Halloran said.

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State Sen. Steve Halloran speaks during a news conference announcing an investigation into the Department of Education on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. He criticized the use of “culturally responsive education” as an interaction of critical race theory. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

Halloran defined this as dividing people based on their skin color and telling them that, by the nature of their skin color, they have an implicit bias.

“I can’t think of anything more dangerous or disingenuous in creating this atmosphere of dividing our children by the color of their skin,” he said.

Critical race theory is an academic framework that some scholars have used to examine issues of racial inequity and, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors, is used to examine the world in a different lens.

Jespersen told Halloran after the conference that culturally responsive education is about meeting kids from their different backgrounds where they are, whether it be cultural, ethnic, racial or other areas.

“And so seeing it through a different lens and being able to respond to how their cultures might be dealing with the pandemic is where we were specifically looking with that,” Jespersen said.

Back to basics

Erdman said parents, not educators, need to be responsible for education and called for a return to the “basics” of education. He highlighted his delight at the impending resignation of Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt, though he wished it would be sooner.

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State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard speaks during a news conference announcing an investigation into the Department of Education on Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, Neb. Erdman said parents need to be responsible for education. (Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS)

“That department has been out of control for years. We’ve been trying to get that back under control,” Erdman said. “We’re going to find out what they’re teaching them, and we’re gonna make a difference in how young people are educated in the state.”

In a follow-up interview, Erdman highlighted Christopher Columbus as an example of basics that need to be taught. He told the Nebraska News Service that Columbus was not a slave trader nor trying to get rich. Instead, Erdman said Columbus died a pauper following a goal to convert people to Jesus Christ.

“He didn’t do all those things we’re saying Columbus did,” Erdman said. “Columbus discovered America, plain and simple. And all our founding fathers were white, there’s nothing I can do about that, I mean, that’s just the way it is. Get back to the basics, teaching the truth about history. Don’t try to rewrite it.”

According to History.com, Columbus traveled the Atlantic Ocean to find a direct water route west from Europe to Asia, finding the Americas in the process. However, millions of indigenous people already occupied the land. This is some of the reasoning people use against Columbus’s actions and why some observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day.