Students testify to benefits of scholarship tax credits
February 18, 2021
Antonio Chavez is an honors student who graduated from Scotus Central Catholic High School in Columbus and is now a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’s studying athletic training and hopes to become a physical therapist.
Elleiana Green is a campus ministry leader at Marian High School in Omaha who works to improve diversity and inclusion at the school and thinks about being a civil rights lawyer someday.
Jacob Idra, a South Sudanese immigrant who graduated from Mount Michael Benedictine School in Elkhorn, is a Creighton University student who sees his future in finance. But he’s also studying African history and theology.
Jayleesha Cooper, a senior at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha, has earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Chicago. There she hopes to study sociology and political science before going on to study law.
All four students could be considered Catholic education success stories, but their paths haven’t been easy. All have relied on hard work and the aid of generous donors who helped fund their education through scholarships and other aid.
Now these students want others, in similar circumstances, to have the same opportunities they’ve had. They’re outspoken proponents of a scholarship tax credit bill in Nebraska that would steer more money to scholarship programs that would help private elementary and secondary school students from low-income families.
All four have testified, by their example and their words, to the benefits of school choice for families. They were reached by phone for this article.
‘NOT ABOUT ME’
“The more I tell my story, the more I realize that it’s not about me,” said Idra, who testified on behalf of LB364, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, at a Jan. 28 hearing before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee. “It’s about future students.”
“I’ve been very blessed,” he acknowledged. His family had the help of the Children’s Scholarship Fund when he was a student at All Saints School in Omaha, and other scholarships helped his family afford his high school education at Mount Michael.
“This bill is a very selfless bill,” Idra said of LB364, introduced by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn on Jan. 13. “You have to look beyond yourself and see kids in your neighborhood and in your city who don’t have the same opportunities.”
The senators at the hearing seemed moved by the students who spoke out, said Jeremy Ekeler, associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses.
The next step would be to try to get the bill moved from the committee onto the floor of the Legislature for debate.
Ekeler is urging others, like the students, to advocate for the measure. The bill appears to be gaining momentum, he said. Sixteen senators had become co-sponsors of the bill by mid-February.
ABLE TO THRIVE
Cooper, whose family received aid from the Children’s Scholarship Fund as she and her brother attended Holy Name School in Omaha, said her life would be different if she had attended other schools.
“I know a lot of kids who grew up in the same circumstances as me,” she said. “Their parents didn’t have the choice of the school that was best for them,” and some of those kids made bad choices.
Her mother, she said, “worked day and night” to help provide for her children’s education.
Cooper said she was able to thrive, thanks to the smaller class sizes and personal attention she got from her Catholic school teachers.
She said she was motivated to work hard and was even able to skip a grade at Holy Name.
At Duchesne, she said, she was exposed to a wide range of ideas that made her well-rounded, which helped her to get into the college she wanted and to achieve other goals.
She has been speaking on behalf of a tax credit scholarship program in Nebraska for three years now.
Chavez said his parents, who came to the United States from Peru, wanted their children to go to a Catholic school, but tuition was an issue. Scholarships and the flexibility of a payment plan made it work, though, and they were able to attend St. Bonaventure School in Columbus before going on to Scotus.
For his part, Chavez kept working hard to earn scholarships.
“It’s rewarding to get that opportunity,” he said.
Chavez said he liked that he and his classmates could pray at school, and that teachers had high expectations for their students and helped guide them toward college.
Scotus is a community, he said, and “I’m always a part of that community.”
Green wasn’t able to speak at the hearing in January, but elsewhere she’s gratefully told her story to help promote school choice and to encourage donations for scholarships.
“I just tell them the Catholic school system is amazing, and it’s shaping futures,” she said. “I want the same opportunities for other children.”
Green and her siblings have attended St. Pius/St. Leo School in Omaha, as well as Marian and Creighton Preparatory School.
Her parents, who met at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha, “always wanted the best education for us, regardless of the cost,” Green said, and they were willing to sacrifice for it.
She said she worked harder for her education, knowing her parents couldn’t easily afford it.
The Catholic faith that the schools have taught has been a constant in her life, Green said. And the rigorous academics have taught her how to manage her time.
TUITION AN OBSTACLE
Dan Koenig, principal of Archbishop Bergan Catholic School in Fremont, said he’s trying to promote LB364 as much as possible.
Fremont has a high poverty rate, with almost half of students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches, he said, and “we have a number of students who don’t attend our Catholic school because of the fact that it’s cost-prohibitive to their families.”
Tuition can be an obstacle for many, he said. “If we could remove that obstacle, people in poverty could attend. We’d love to serve every child” who wanted to attend Archbishop Bergan, he said.
Koenig himself was educated at Archbishop Bergan, and without that experience, “I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he said.
“I want that opportunity for others,” Koenig said, “and I don’t want cost to be a reason not to go.”