Capitol: Lawmakers look to revamp school testing, ease rules on robo-calls

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January 18th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – A better “report card” for how well schools are doing, and fewer restrictions on political “robo-calls”, were among issues discussed in the Legislature Tuesday.

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Nebraska schools are already evaluated on whether they’re making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind program. They’re also given a report card based on what percentage of students test as proficient on state tests of reading, writing and math, with science being added this year. But Senator Greg Adams, chairman of the Education Committee, has introduced legislation authorizing a new way to evaluate Nebraska schools.

Sen. Greg Adams wants to expand school evaluations to be more inclusive of students' overall performance. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“What I’m suggesting in LB870, similar to what I’ve suggested in the past, is that we expand – not completely throw out what we’ve done – that’s not what this bill does – but rather to expand upon our existing assessment system and add some other measurements.”

Critics of the existing assessments point out that No Child Left Behind compares this year’s students with the previous year’s, and the state assessments show how students do on tests, but not how they’re doing overall.

The State Board of Education has a tentative plan that would count things like graduation rates and how the same students have progressed from year to year. Board member Bob Evnen says the idea is not to punish poorly performing schools.

“The question is: if you have a school that is low-performing over an extended period of time, what do you do about it?” Evnen said. “And that’s a serious question with a variety of answers, a variety of ideas. But it seems to me that not to address it is, it would be, immoral.”

Last year, Adams introduced a bill that would have required an intervention team to study poorly performing schools and come up with a plan to improve them. School organizations resisted, so this year’s legislation simply proposes to collect information, and decide what to do with it later. No one at the Education Committee hearing spoke against the bill.

Sen. Heath Mello objected to easing regulations on political "robo-calls," saying it would ignore Nebraskans' clear dislike for the calls.

On the floor of the Legislature, senators began debating a bill that would ease restrictions on automated phone calls related to candidates or issues – so called “robo-calls.” Currently, people who want to make such calls must register their machines and provide a script of the calls to the public service commission. Omaha Sen. John Nelson wants to do away with that requirement.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello objected, saying “This completely disregards the outcries and the outrage we heard from Nebraskans when this issue came up.”

“Nebraskans don’t like to receive these calls,” Mello said. “That’s not for debate. But what we’re debating today is whether or not we want to make it easier for unnamed individuals, which would happen under LB418, to be able to utilize these calls under the name of making it easier for them.”

Under Nelson’s bill, campaigns that wanted to use robo-calls would still be limited to making them between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., and would still have to identify upfront who was paying for them. But Nelson said dropping the requirement for registering the machines and providing a script is a good idea.

“I don’t see what business the public service commission has looking at what you propose to say over the phone and the content of your message,” Nelson said. “I think that’s a violation of our free speech.”
Debate on the bill is scheduled to resume today.

In other matters, lawmakers welcomed their newest colleague. Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings replaces Sen. Dennis Utter, who died in December. In appointing Seiler, Gov. Dave Heineman described the 70-year old attorney as a fiscal conservative who understands the need for middle class tax relief, a strong supporter of education, and pro-life. His term will run until January of next year.

Also, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont said that even though he’s asked for debate to be postponed on his voter ID bill, he’s not giving up on it. Opponents have said the bill would disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Janssen says that’s not true, and he wants more time to inform his colleagues before the issue comes up for debate

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