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Historic moment for school choice

The Nebraska Legislature’s Revenue Committee May 18 voted 5-3 to advance the Opportunity Scholarships Act (LB295) to General File (see below for information to send a thank-you to the senators who supported LB295).

The bill is now eligible for debate by the entire Legislature for the 2018 legislative session. The advancement to General File also marks a historic moment for school-choice legislation in Nebraska.

Introduced by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion (chairman of the Revenue Committee), LB295 provides tax credits for privately-funded scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend the private school of their choice. These scholarships are funded by private donations to qualified nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). In return, those who provide private donations could receive a tax credit (as opposed to a tax deduction) on their state income tax bill. Similar scholarship tax credit programs exist in at least 18 other states, including Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota.

The legislation corresponds beautifully with the primary responsibility of parents to direct the education of their children and the state’s duty to recognize and assist in this responsibility. As the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" states: "As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental … Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise."

By providing an avenue for increased scholarship opportunities for low- and middle-income students, Nebraska can empower parents and families who may otherwise lack adequate financial resources to give their children the education best suited to their needs.

Throughout Nebraska, faith-based and private schools and other scholarship organizations are nowhere near meeting the demand of students in need of financial assistance. For example, the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Omaha already funds private-school scholarships for more than 1,800 low-income students a year. But they also must turn away more than 600 students a year for lack of donations. The same is true with many Catholic, Lutheran and other faith-based or private schools across Nebraska.

The Opportunity Scholarships Act – as other scholarship tax credit legislation across the country – also would help our state achieve significant cost savings, without taking away funds from public schools.

The state saves money when scholarships are provided to students who transfer from public to non-public schools or who would otherwise be in a public school but for the scholarship opportunity. When the students transfer, the cost of their education is assumed by the non-public school. This creates a direct savings to the state because such students will not receive state aid as a public-school student. Such savings are realized almost immediately after the passage of scholarship tax credit legislation. Notably, our faith-based and private schools alone already save the state around half-a-billion dollars per year.

Scholarship tax credit programs across the country have saved at least $1.7 billion to date. Our neighbors in Iowa have saved at least $280 million since the enactment of their scholarship tax credit program in 2006.

With the advancement of the Opportunity Scholarships Act from the Revenue Committee, the Nebraska Catholic Conference intends to provide extensive public education on the importance of school choice and turning LB295 into law. As we move forward, it will be critical for our elected representatives in the Nebraska Legislature to hear from their constituents about the importance of advancing the Opportunity Scholarships Act and giving our children greater access to schools that are best suited to their educational needs.

For now, we ask that you send a thank-you e-mail or letter to those state senators who voted to advance LB295 from the Revenue Committee to General File. Let them know that you appreciate their support of robust school choice and fiscally responsible legislation.

In addition to Sen. Smith (jsmith@leg.ne.gov), state senators voting to advance the bill are: Brett Lindstrom of Omaha (blindstrom@leg.ne.gov), Tyson Larson of O’Neill (tlarson@leg.ne.gov), Mike Groene of North Platte (mgroene@leg.ne.gov), and Lydia Brasch of Bancroft (lbrasch@leg.ne.gov).

Senators who opposed the bill are: Burke Harr of Omaha, Paul Schumacher of Columbus and Curt Friesen of Henderson.

 

 

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.

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