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Expanding Collaboration Between Nebraskan Citizens and the State Board of Education

In the spring of 2004, the Nebraska State Board of Education was looking for a way to allow a cross-section of residents to weigh in on the recommendations they had developed and laid out in a document called Equitable Opportunities For an Essential Education For All Students-Recommendations for Nebraska Public School Districts.

Although the state board was looking to move ahead with its ideas, they knew from previous experience with public engagement how valuable and important involving citizens directly in the policy development process could prove to their efforts.

In 1996, Public Agenda had helped the state board engage hundreds of Nebraskans on the then contentious question of statewide standards. Parents, students, educators and community members participated in Choicework discussion forums where they wrestled with various approaches to the standards issue.

Building off the results of these discussions, the state board was able to adopt new statewide guidelines–confident that the perspectives and values of a large number of residents had been heard and reflected in their efforts.

So, with their past success in mind, the state board again asked Public Agenda to help design and implement a public engagement process–this time to address the issue of an “essential education” for all students.

Toward that end Public Agenda conducted focus groups and helped selected districts facilitate discussion forums with more than 370 parents, students, educators (teachers, principals and superintendents) and members of the general public that all told, represented roughly 25 districts. In addition, we trained local organizers, moderators, and recorders in each of the districts where forums took place.

The state board learned people have an expansive vision of the educational opportunities that should be available to all students, and furthermore, that their views were generally consistent with the state board’s thinking. The focus groups and discussion forums generated commentary on where Nebraskans felt the gaps were in the existing essential educational opportunities, as well as any cautions or concerns of which they wanted the state board to be aware.

Perhaps most gratifying for the state board itself, participants felt that it was very appropriate indeed for the state board to take a leadership role in defining an “essential education” and setting policies in motion that would support the concept.