State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn talks about a scholarship tax credit bill she introduced in the Legislature as part of a Jan. 29 School Choice Rally and press conference at the State Capitol in Lincoln. Behind Linehan are Nyarok Tot, left, a freshman journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who graduated from All Saints School in Omaha and Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue; and State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, a supporter of the bill. MEL O’KEEFE/MEL WATSON PHOTOGRAPHY

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Not alone anymore: School choice gains support

When State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan introduced a scholarship tax credit bill three years ago, she wasn’t surrounded by fellow senators supporting the measure.

She felt alone, she said.

Three years later and now on a third attempt to get a scholarship tax credit bill passed, the senator from Elkhorn is not so lonely.

When she talked about Legislative Bill 1202 at a Jan. 29 press conference and a National School Choice Week Rally in Lincoln, about 10 senators stood with her in support of the bill. Hundreds of people were in attendance.

“I have a lot of help,” Linehan said in a telephone interview. “That’s a huge difference in three years,” she said, and it shows the growing support for school choice legislation.

That increased support is coming from fellow senators, from citizens across the state and from school choice advocates locally and nationally, said Linehan, who chairs the Legislature’s Revenue Committee and is making LB1202, the “Opportunity Scholarships Act,” her priority bill.

About 200 private and parochial school students – including some from Holy Name, All Saints and Sacred Heart Schools in Omaha and Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue – attended the school choice rally, said Lauren Garcia, communications and outreach specialist for the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which helped organize the event.

The students wore bright yellow scarves and were spurred on by cheerleaders, a choir and speakers, including Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and students like them who’ve benefited from an education at a private or parochial school.

“Every year, I am inspired by the hundreds of school children from across Nebraska who come to our Capitol to celebrate National School Choice Week,” Linehan said in a press release after the event.

“So many students in our state wish to count themselves among those fortunate enough to choose the school that’s best for them. We rally together to celebrate those families that have that choice, and to give a voice to those who don’t.”

Nebraska is one of only three states in the country with no school choice policies, Linehan said.

LB1202 would allow state income tax credit for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to students who want to attend private or parochial elementary and secondary schools.

“LB1202 will transform the lives of so many children and families across the state of Nebraska by giving educational freedom to those who have none,” said Tom Venzor, executive director of the NCC, in the press release. “It will give children the freedom to attain their life goals, such as going to college and landing a dream job. It will give parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their family, regardless of income or zip code.”

The bill could face a tough fight in the Legislature.

Last year, a similar bill introduced by Linehan was unable to survive a filibuster. This year’s proposal is slightly different, though, and she’s hoping senators will have fewer objections to it.

The new bill, introduced in the Legislature on Jan. 23, has a tougher standard of poverty for students to qualify for scholarships.

Under last year’s bill, students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, whose families had incomes of up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, would be eligible to receive the scholarships.

Under the new bill, a student’s family income would have to be low enough for them to qualify for benefits from the government Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which means being at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, for the student to be eligible for a scholarship.

“So it’s a pretty big reduction in income levels,” Linehan said. But 64,000 children in Nebraska – roughly 20 percent of the kindergarten-through-12th-grade age group – would still qualify, she said.

Last year’s measure would have capped tax credits at a total of $10 million and that number could have increased in following years. The new proposal does not include the option for future increases. Any increases would have to be approved later by lawmakers.

Linehan said she hopes that the changes will “take away some talking points … that I didn’t think were very fair….” Opponents “won’t be able to say it’s going to cost $100 million when it was only $10 million.”

Linehan’s own children have attended public and private schools. She said she wants all parents to be able to choose what’s best for their children.

The senator, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, said Nebraskans have become more knowledgeable and vocal on school choice issues.

“I think they’re braver now than they were three years ago because they’re not alone, right?” she said. “None of us are as lonely as we were. It’s the tipping point. You just keep pushing, and then all of a sudden you reach it, which is exactly what’s happened in other states.”

Linehan urges people to continue their efforts by calling their senators – and by praying.

“Prayer is important here,” she said, “and we can use some help.”