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Students, parents and teachers gather on the steps of the state Capitol in Lincoln Jan 26 at a rally for National School Choice Week. Photo by SL Hansen/Southern Nebraska Resgister.

School choice rally draws spirited crowd

Sporting long, yellow scarves proclaiming it National School Choice Week, carrying signs such as "Choice Means Hope" and "Put Kids First," more than 600 students, teachers, parents and other proponents of school choice rallied on the steps of the state Capitol Jan. 26 in Lincoln.

They included students from archdiocesan schools such as Holy Name, Sacred Heart and All Saints in Omaha and St. Mary in Bellevue, as well as Catholic and other schools in Lincoln and surrounding cities.

The annual gathering was one of more than 21,000 rallies, school tours and policy forums around the country marking National School Choice Week, Jan. 22-28.

"It was high energy despite the cold," said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which backs school choice bill LB295, designed to help low- to middle-income children attend parochial and other private schools in the state.

"All these kids, shouting in excitement ... parents and teachers sharing their personal stories about how school choice impacted them," he said.

A snowstorm that left icy, snow-packed roads prevented several schools from attending, including St. Michael in South Sioux City and St. Boniface and Pope John XXIII Central Catholic High School, both in Elgin, and kept the rally below the expected 1,000 or more.

But those in Lincoln included eighth-grader Rachel Idra-Rocu of All Saints, who told the crowd about immigrating to the United States from war-torn Sudan and settling in Omaha with her parents and six siblings, strapped for money, wanting a Catholic education, and gratefully finding some scholarship help such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund and other support from the community.

"Well, not all students have these great benefits," Idra-Rocu said. "Not all students are able to access the scholarship help that my family has received. I know there are many more families and students just like me that want to have more choices in the schools they can attend."

She encouraged lawmakers and others to back legislation that would help parents send their children to Catholic or other private schools of their choice.

"Take into consideration the impact you can make on just one child’s education by making school choice a benefit in Nebraska," Idra-Rocu said.

After the rally, Patrick Slattery, superintendent of archdiocesan Catholic schools, took a similar message to the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. He testified at a hearing in support of LB295, "The Opportunity Scholarship Act," which is backed by the NCC, the public policy arm of Nebraska’s three bishops.

Similar to legislation the NCC has backed in past years, the bill would give individuals and businesses a 100 percent income tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations, with an aggregate first-year cap of $10 million that would increase incrementally in following years. Qualifying students must be entering kindergarten or ninth grade, or transferring from a public school.

Slattery said he urged lawmakers to "let us partner with public schools to give expanded opportunities to our students."

After the hearing, Slattery said some critics of the bill have argued the state would lose money, but studies indicate states with similar laws save money.

Venzor said several Revenue Committee members appear to be receptive to the legislation, and it could be the first bill of its kind to advance to the floor of the Legislature.

"We feel confident it will get out of committee," he said.

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