Commentary

Help Wanted: A Path to Victory for School Choice

Governor Jim Pillen recently announced he will make school choice a key priority of his administration. He has dedicated $25 million to school choice in his budget proposal to the Nebraska Legislature. On top of this commitment, Gov. Pillen asked legislative school choice champion, Senator Lou Ann Linehan, to introduce school choice legislation “at the request of the Governor.” Sen. Linehan, of course, obliged in this partnership, and on Day 10 of the legislative session, accompanied by 30 of her colleagues, she introduced LB753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act. 

With 31 Senators introducing and co-sponsoring school choice legislation, the path to victory for school choice is very real but will require your advocacy to cross the finish line. 

What Is the Opportunity Scholarships Act? LB753 is a form of school choice legislation known as scholarship tax credit legislation. Scholarship tax credits are a form of tax policy that provide an increased incentive for donors to contribute to scholarship-granting organizations, which then turn around and use those charitable contributions to provide education scholarships for families in need of more educational opportunities for their children. That’s a long way of saying LB753 creates more scholarships for K-12 students to attend the school of their choice. 

Who Does Scholarship Tax Credits Help? LB753 primarily serves students in poverty, which is accomplished through a tiering system. 

In the first tier are students whose family income is at or below 100% of the federal poverty level. To make these numbers real, this is the equivalent of a family of four with a yearly household income of $27,750 or less. In the second tier are students whose family income is up to 185% of federal poverty. The next tier is students whose family income is up to 213% of federal poverty. 

LB753 would also provide increased scholarship opportunities for children of military families, kids who have experienced bullying and harassment, children in the foster care system, and kids with special education needs. 

In short, Sen. Linehan’s school choice legislation focuses on the most vulnerable children among us who are most likely to lack access to educational opportunities. 

But Won’t School Choice Hurt Public Schools? Perhaps the most common misconception about school choice is that it somehow hurts public schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Scholarship tax credit legislation does nothing to diminish public school funding. In Nebraska, public schools are primarily funded through local property taxes and/or the TEEOSA formula (an acronym for the state’s education funding formula). Scholarship tax credit legislation does not touch either of these funding mechanisms. Furthermore, in states with school choice, it has been proven that scholarship tax credit programs provide cost savings to the state. This is just one way school choice is a smart return on investment for the state. 

Additionally, numerous studies demonstrate that school choice creates healthy competition, strengthening private and public schools. School choice improves education outcomes for all kids (in both public and private schools), fosters higher graduation rates and college enrollment, and reduces poverty. 

What Is the Path to Victory? One major hurdle to passing legislation in Nebraska is overcoming a filibuster. Filibusters typically occur on contentious bills. Filibusters are a legislative debate tool used by a bill’s opponents to “talk a bill to death.” It requires 33 Senators to affirmatively vote to end a filibuster. Once this is achieved, a bill can be advanced through the legislative process with 25 supporting Senators.  

As I noted earlier, LB753 already has 31 supporting Senators. This number excludes Speaker John Arch, who has been a school choice champion over the years but does not co–sponsor legislation in his role as Speaker. This means we have 32 supporters, a mere one vote away from having enough support to overcome a filibuster. 

But just because we nearly have the votes today doesn’t mean we should rest on our laurels, far from it. Instead, we need to remain vigilant and active as the legislative session progresses. If your Senator supported LB753 out of the gate, thank them and let them know you have their back in this battle for school choice. If they haven’t yet supported the bill, encourage them and share your story about why school choice is critical for Nebraska’s students. 

For an easy way to contact your Senator, go to www.NEcatholic.org/TakeAction and use the LB753 action alert to contact your Senator and thank Governor Pillen! God bless your efforts! 

Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference. Email him at tvenzor@necatholic.org.