School choice supporters have new reasons for hope this year
February 3, 2023
This could be the year for school choice in Nebraska.
Proponents of a measure that would help low-income families and others afford non-public schools are hopeful, believing they have the support of enough senators to push the bill through.
Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn introduced the Opportunity Scholarships Act (Legislative Bill 753) Jan. 18 on behalf of Gov. Jim Pillen. The governor has made education – including LB753 – a priority of his administration.
The measure would incentivize – through income tax credits – donations to organizations that grant scholarships to private schools.
Linehan – who has fought for school choice throughout her six-year tenure in the Legislature – tweaked a bill she introduced last year to eliminate possible objections.
This year, she hopes, will be the culmination of years of work by school choice supporters, a year when “preparation meets opportunity,” the senator said.
Thirty-one senators co-sponsored LB753. Speaker John Arch, who supported similar measures in the past, also is expected to support the bill. Thirty-three votes would be needed to fend off a filibuster.
“We have built up support for this over the last six years,” Linehan said. “And now we actually have the funding.”
Forty-eight states have passed a school choice policy of some sort, which would include charter schools, tax credits or education savings accounts.
“There are a lot of flavors, of types, of school choice, across the country,” said Jeremy Ekeler, associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, but Nebraska and North Dakota remain the holdouts on school choice.
“Our approach, with tax credits, is the most established as it is now proven in 21 states,” Ekeler said.
Pillen’s budget proposal sets aside $1 billion for public schools, most of it to establish an Education Futures Fund to ensure legislators don’t have to carve into public K-12 funding in lean times.
Pillen’s budget plan also allows up to $25 million for tax credits for non-public school scholarship funds.
“So it’s a package that he has put together so everybody wins – private schools, public schools, taxpayers,” said Linehan, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn. “He’s been very strategic about building a package that should have a lot of support from all over the state.”
Supporters of LB753 said they’ve had to battle a lot of misconceptions about tax credits in previous years.
It’s a fallacy that public money would be used to fund non-public schools, that tax credits are public money, said Linehan, who chairs the Legislature’s budget committee.
“Our money that we earn isn’t public until we pay our taxes,” she said. “So this whole idea that there are public dollars going to private education is not true. It’s private dollars going to private education. Yes, there is a tax break, but we do tax credits for all kinds of things. … There are hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits. Tax credits are something the government uses to promote things they think are good.”
“This is a tax credit like so many other tax credits,” he said, “whether that’s for early childhood education, biodiesel, or historical monuments. This is a separate, stand-alone tax credit that does not involve public education funding.”
HOW IT WOULD WORK
Under the Opportunity Scholarships Act, tax credits for donations would be capped at 50% of the tax liability for an individual or business.
The scholarships would prioritize students in families that are at 100% of the federal poverty level, students who have an individualized education program (IEP), those who’ve been bullied or harassed, are in foster care or military families, or who’ve been denied public school option enrollment.
If funds allow, other students could be eligible for scholarships.
The scholarships would be for students new to a school, such as a kindergartener, a ninth-grader or a sibling transferring from another school.
Pillen’s proposed public school funding should help fight off the perception that her bill would somehow hurt public education, Linehan said.
“You know, when you’re handing them a billion-dollar Education Futures Fund for public schools, it’s hard for them to argue that somehow they’re going to be punished if this program passes. When this program passes, I should say.”
“You never know,” she said, “things go awry down here (in Lincoln), but I just don’t see how we don’t pass it this year. The public support is great. The prayers are tremendous. The governor is on board full steam. I mean, he’s not on board. He’s leading the charge.”
In private conversations, some senators who didn’t co-sponsor the bill told Linehan that they would vote for cloture on the bill if it faced a predicted filibuster.
“So I feel very good now,” she said. “If I mess up and make a bunch of people mad, that’s problematic. But I’m going to try very hard not to do that,” the senator said with a laugh.
She acknowledged that promises of support in casual conversation don’t always translate into votes. “And to be safe, I need to get over 33 (votes)” because a supporter might be sick or something might happen and a senator might not be present when it’s time to vote.
“It’s very risky to just say 33, but I feel like we’ll be over 33.
“But I need prayers and I need people calling their senators,” not just the ones who currently oppose the bill, but also to thank supporters. The Nebraska Catholic Conference joins her in encouraging people to contact their senators.
“Even with the governor putting his name on it, so to speak, and setting aside that money in the budget and with the 31 co-sponsors, we are keeping the pedal down the whole way, no doubt,” Ekeler said.
“We’re not going to take that for granted. We’re going to work to see this thing all the way through.”
SCHOOL CHOICE FOR ALL
Christopher Uttecht, principal at Cedar Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Hartington, spoke in favor of LB753 at a Jan. 24 school choice press conference.
“My whole feeling is that school choice should not just be for those who can afford it,” he said in a recent interview. “And with Nebraska being one of two states in the nation that doesn’t have school choice – that’s really where we’re left – that school choice is only for those who can afford it.”
“It’s not a public versus private school battle because we have good private schools and we have good public schools in Nebraska,” said Uttecht, who’s worked in both. “It’s about allowing parents to choose which school fits their child and their family best. It should not be a financial hardship to choose a private school.”
For many parents, faith is a priority, he said. They would like to send their children to schools “where students can practice their faith with their class within their school, go to Mass with their class, pray during the day, receive the sacraments. … It’s a huge selling point.”
Linehan said her bill has gained support because more senators are seeing how students from low-income families have thrived because of scholarships to non-public schools.
“I think we have enough senators who understand that every child’s unique. Every child has unique needs and unique learning experiences,” Linehan said. “And just because you are not as fortunate as many of us are who can afford private tuition doesn’t mean that your child shouldn’t have an opportunity if that’s the best fit.”
Linehan said she’s buoyed by faith and the growing support of her colleagues in the Legislature.
“I have a lot of senators who are champions for it because they sit through those hearings and they’ve heard from young people who got the opportunity to go to a private school because of scholarships … and they compare their lives to other people in very similar circumstances who didn’t have that opportunity. … It saves kids.”
Senators on the revenue committee were to hear similar stories this year at a hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 3 in room 1524 on the first floor of the State Capitol. A crowd was expected.
Linehan said she’s optimistic about the Opportunity Scholarships Act because of the Church support she’s received “from the bishops and the Catholic Conference to the parishes: priests, students, teachers, administrators. They’ve worked so hard on this day and night for years. I would not be here without them.”
“We are hopeful,” Ekeler said, “but we will need the support of the Catholic community, the prayers of the Catholic community, because of the amount of work in front of us and the amount of misinformation that’s going to be coming. The closer we get, the harder the opposition pushes back.
“So hang in there with us because it’s a fight worth winning because it’s for kids ultimately. We have to keep our focus on opportunities for children, so that should be an easy thing to support and fight for.”
Ekeler said the Nebraska Catholic Conference is grateful to Sen. Linehan and Gov. Pillen for the work they’ve done to support school choice.