Catholic officials are worried that proposed legislation to define "textbook" will deny digital materials for Nebraska private school students as part of the longtime publicly funded textbook loan program.
But state senators and Nebraska Department of Education officials said in a legislative Education Committee hearing and interviews that they intend to keep the program. In fact, they said, they want to ensure that the law allows for changing technology for years to come.
Though both sides seem to agree on the goal — extending the types of material available for private school students — they have vastly different interpretations about what the proposed legislation would do.
That has led to a lobbying campaign by Catholic schools urging parents to contact state officials, who in turn express bafflement that they are being accused of doing anything to undermine the program.
Enacted in 1986, the textbook loan program allows public school districts to purchase and lend textbooks to accredited private school students using money appropriated by the Legislature.
Public school districts release a list of titles and publishers of items that are being used in classrooms. The list then can be requested for private school students who live in the area or attend school near the partner public school.
For the upcoming school year, $465,000 is the statewide amount given for the program.
State Sen. Kate Sullivan has introduced Legislative Bill 1066, which she called an "annual cleanup bill."
It includes more than 10 technical changes to various education issues. One suggests adding a definition for "textbook" in the statute of the textbook loan program.
The proposed definition starts by describing a textbook as "a reusable set of printed sheets of paper that are bound together inside a cover," plus reusable workbooks or manuals "whether bound or in another medium."
Those last three words could mean all different types of materials, including CDs, DVDs and digital resources, said Matthew Blomstedt, the commissioner of education for the Nebraska Department of Education.
Blomstedt said the department's proposed definition, which Sullivan inserted in the bill, is a first step to "start a conversation" with legislators on how to best define rapidly changing education materials.
"I prefer permissive language in legislation to make clear that we have the right to expand the definition," Blomstedt said.
He said the goal is "to allow digital materials to be included in the current context as well as expand it."
But Sheri Rickert, the policy director and general counsel of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, finds problems with the proposed definition, saying that it limits educational resources available to private school students by using an old-fashioned book definition.
The Department of Education already has a definition of textbook in its regulations, based on Nebraska law: "Textbook shall mean a book or electronic media (DVDs, audio CDs, CDROMs, audiotapes, videotapes, etc.) ..."
Blomstedt said the department's attorneys recommended that the Legislature change the definition in the law rather than rely on regulatory wording.
In January, the Nebraska Catholic Conference submitted a petition to the Department of Education to revise its definition of a textbook in the regulations. Its proposed change would strike all listed examples and say a textbook is "any education resource" used by students.
The Catholic Conference has posted a sample message on its website urging Catholic school parents to email it to their State Board of Education representatives.
The message expresses opposition to the proposed legislative change and calls instead for broadening the wording in the regulations.
"It's awfully curious that they're putting this much resistance in what should be a reasonable and routine updating of a program to reflect current technological advances in instructional material," Rickert said.
Troy Berryman, president of Norfolk Catholic School, said usually a handful of titles are on loan per grade.
No electronic books have been on the list that public school districts offer, but Berryman blames the current rule, not the schools.
"We are concerned with textbook companies and society in general moving to more electronic mindset," he said. "We hope the textbook loan legislation also moves with the times."
Rickert also believes that there is an attempt to reduce money allocated to the textbook loan fund, based on the fiscal note in Legislative Bill 1026, which was introduced by State Sen. Adam Morfeld.
The bill calls for modernization of technology resources at the Nebraska Department of Education and would create a chief integration officer position.
The fiscal note has a $50,000 expense from the general fund and lists three programs, including the textbook loan program, that "could be considered for integration."
"It's interesting that they're looking at it for a potential funding source," Rickert said, explaining her interpretation of the fiscal note. "The parents would lose financial benefit."
Morfeld said the suggestion that anyone was seeking to remove funds from the textbook loan program was "100 percent irrational and 100 percent false."
"I don't know how you look at that (the fiscal note) and say we're going to get rid of it. It's integration," Morfeld said. "I am in support of the textbook loan program."
In her opposition testimony at the Education Committee hearing Feb. 1, Rickert said the department's words don't match its actions.
"I would like to say that we don't like our conspiracy theory ... that the textbook loan program is not a favorite of the department and they would just as soon see it go away," she testified.
In an interview, Blomstedt said he does not want to "undo textbook loans," and stressed that his job as commissioner is to help all Nebraska students, whether they attend public or private schools.
"There's no conspiracy outside of trying to do what's good for schools across the state of Nebraska," he said.
"To think that we're doing something other than what we're trying to do, (which is) to expand all of the digital resources to ensure that test book loans move forward with the times to make sure all students have access to those resources."
The Legislature's Education Committee has yet to act on the bill, and can decide whether to amend or advance it.
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