Groups planning protest, Nebraska ballot initiative after school choice bill passes

Supporters say scholarships resulting from LB753, one of the governor’s flagship bills, will give opportunities to low-income families. Opponents warn of negative impacts on public education.
Published: May. 24, 2023 at 2:34 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Nebraska lawmakers on Wednesday passed LB753, known as the “school choice” or “school voucher” bill, but opponents are already planning to put the matter before voters.

Introduced by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn at the request of Gov. Jim Pillen, the bill authorizes $25 million in tax credits for those who donate scholarships to private schools in Nebraska — one of two states that do not provide such schools with public funds. It passed 33-11-5 on Wednesday.

The pool of dollars is expected to grow to $100 million in a few years.

“Today is about the kids and families in Nebraska whose lives will be changed thanks to the freedom to attend a school that best fits their needs. It has been my honor and privilege to be part of this effort,” Linehan said in a statement. She has been pushing for school choice for seven years.

Pillen said in a statement that the approval of the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” was “a huge is a huge step forward in giving Nebraska parents and students more school choice.”

State Sen. R. Brad von Gillern of Elkhorn said it’s not about creating an adversarial educational structure.

“This is not about public versus private schools. It’s about finding the best scenario for every child, for every family, for every situation,” he said.

State Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha said school choice will help bring the best educational options to students who need a bit of extra help.

“We are actually celebrating public schools here and the success rate they have; but we’re also looking out for those kids that are not successful in that setting and what kind of options can we give them to be the best version of themselves,” he said.

The Nebraska Family Alliance, whose mission statement is to “advance family, freedom, and life by influencing policy, mobilizing prayer, and empowering people,” also expressed its support of the vote, saying the bill empowers parents.

“Today is an important, hard-fought victory for school choice in Nebraska,” the news release states. “LB753 puts power back into the hands of parents and will help more families have the choice to send their child to the school that best meets their needs and aligns with their values.”

Nebraska bishops were also supportive of Wednesday’s news, saying that the scholarships would provide opportunities for low-income families.

“As the first and primary educators of their child, parents are uniquely suited to tend to their child’s educational needs. Parents have the privilege, right, and duty to choose the best educational setting for their child,” Archbishop George Lucas, Lincoln Bishop James Conley, and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island said in a joint statement Wednesday from the Nebraska Catholic Conference. “Every child deserves an education that nurtures their intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth, and LB753 makes a transformative education more accessible to all children.”

But OpenSky Policy Institute Executive Director Dr. Rebecca Firestone questioned whether those opportunities would actually benefit low-income students.

“Generally speaking, much of the evidence shows that you don’t see a lot of switching and don’t see a lot of public school students going to private schools,” she told 6 News. “There is a trend that these tax credits continue to go to kids who are already in private schools. This is a much more generous tax break for a particular type of charitable giving to specific scholarship-granting organizations than any kind of tax treatment we see for other forms of charitable giving in this state.”

The governor’s signature on the bill will make Nebraska the 49th state to offer school choice. Dr. Firestone said that doesn’t mean the concept is working everywhere, however.

“In other states, these credits have started small but steadily ballooned in cost, reducing what’s available to districts to pay teachers, provide counseling services, and fund vocational and technical programs fundamental to achieving many of the things that we want in the state,” she said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

But opponents say the bill threatens public education, and have plans to protest at the state capitol on Saturday morning.

“We need to remind state senators and the governor that a majority of Nebraskans oppose giving public tax dollars to fund private schools,” said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association.

The NSEA called LB753 “a tax scheme” voters don’t want, saying it will “hurt taxpayers and kids” — and hold state funding for public schools hostage.

“Supporters of LB753 claim it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but the reality is LB753 is a tax voucher scheme that will drain funding from our public schools and give it to unaccountable private schools that discriminate against kids,” Benson said in a statement following the vote. “...If lawmakers cut promised state funding for public schools, it puts more pressure on our already-high property taxes.”

State Sen. George Dungan of Omaha also expressed concern about the legality of the shift in funding.

“We’re finding ourselves in a situation where I do believe we are running afoul of the constitutional provision where we are not allowed to give public funds to private schools,” he said Wednesday.

OpenSky said in a news release public schools in rural areas would be hit particularly hard.

The NSEA said that more than half of Nebraska’s 93 counties have no private schools; OpenSky said only seven of 38 counties west of Kearney have private schools. But Linehan said there are only four counties in the state of Nebraska that don’t have children attending private schools.

“So when we say there are no options in rural Nebraska, that’s just not true,” she said.

“The income tax credits in LB753 essentially allow wealthy Nebraskans to opt out of paying to support public education and other state services,” Dr. Firestone said in the OpenSky release.

The nonprofit, which calls itself a nonpartisan advocate “for a strong Nebraska through clear fiscal research and analysis,” is joining forces with an NSEA-led coalition called Support Our Schools Nebraska to bring forth a ballot initiative on the issue in 2024.

“In large cities and small towns, Nebraskans take pride in strong public schools that make our communities better places to live, raise a family and start a business,” Firestone said. “They should have a say in voucher programs like LB753.”

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Stand For Schools, another nonpartisan nonprofit, is also joining the ballot initiative effort.

“Today’s passage of LB753 marks a dark new era for schooling in Nebraska,” Executive Director Dunixi Guereca said in a written statement on behalf of the organization, which says it is “dedicated to advancing public education in Nebraska.”

The senators voting to pass LB753 “chose what was easy over what was right” in spite of “overwhelming and constantly mounting evidence” that vouchers don’t improve access to private schools or academic outcomes, she said.

“It is far easier to demonize the education professionals who work hard in our public schools every day than it is to address crisis-level staff shortages by recruiting and retaining the qualified teachers and school psychologists our students need,” she said. “It is far easier to restrict the ability of school districts to raise revenue than to finally, fully fund our K-12 public education system. And it is far easier to offload the duties of educating the next generation of Nebraskans to unaccountable private schools than to do the hard work of providing a free, fair, equitable, and excellent public school system that works for all.”