Support grows for Nebraska scholarship tax credit bill
January 21, 2021
A proposal that would help low-income families afford a Catholic education is getting another go-round this year in the Nebraska Legislature.
This year might finally be the year the measure is enacted, proponents say, as support continues to grow.
LB364, called the Opportunity Scholarships Act, was introduced Jan. 13 by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, with 14 other senators co-sponsoring. The measure would allow tax credits for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships for students in low-income families.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has lent his support by allocating $2 million a year for two years in his proposed budget.
Similar bills have been brought before the Legislature before. This is the fourth such bill introduced by Linehan.
Recent events in Nebraska and nationally have garnered support for the bill and are making Jeremy Ekeler hopeful that this year it could be passed. Ekeler is associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that the State of Montana could not exclude religious schools in its tax-credit funded scholarship program.
“That was a big win for us,” Ekeler said. “It’s absolutely legal and constitutional” to offer such programs that benefit Catholic schools and students.
Additionally, he said, the COVID-19 pandemic has put education in the forefront of people’s minds and has shown there are “lots of ways to educate a child, and not all are a perfect fit for a child.”
School choice measures, such as scholarship tax credits, are increasingly being adopted across the country and importantly in the states that surround Nebraska, Ekeler said.
Linehan herself is earning respect and boosting her credibility in the Legislature, where as chairperson of the Revenue Committee she helped usher in property tax relief, tabling last year’s tax credit scholarship bill, her priority bill for the session, to do so, according to Ekeler.
“I’m super hopeful this year” about LB364’s chances, he said. “I have a lot of faith in Senator Linehan.”
So does Ricketts, who’s worked closely with Linehan on property tax relief.
He said he “absolutely” supports her proposal for tax credits for scholarship donations.
Allocating money for the measure, which would still have to be approved by the Legislature, might help it gain traction, the governor said in a telephone interview.
He said he made room in his proposed state budget so senators wouldn’t have to find the funding.
Ricketts said his policy team will be working with Linehan and others, talking with senators and educating people on the bill, to help get it out of committee and onto the floor of the Legislature for debate. From there, they would continue to promote it, he said.
Before becoming governor, Ricketts served on boards of the Children’s Scholarship Fund and CUES, organizations that help underprivileged children attend private schools.
He said he knows the effectiveness of the CUES inner city schools, which have high poverty rates among students, but also high success rates for students going on and graduating from high school.
“I believe we have to allow kids and parents a choice in education,” Ricketts said. Scholarships would help give parents an alternative for education that can help their children become successful, he said.
Tax credits that would encourage scholarship donations is one way to “have the public help underwrite the education of low-income kids.”
CLEARING UP MISCONCEPTIONS
Over the years Linehan, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and others have had to clear up misconceptions about tax credit scholarship plans. Changes in proposed legislation have been made to ease concerns.
“There’s a ton of misinformation,” Ekeler said. Scholarship tax credits are not an attempt to close public schools, they wouldn’t divert money away from those schools, and they are not vouchers, he said.
Only students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches would qualify for the scholarships, silencing “chatter” about the scholarships helping rich families, said Linehan, who represents western Douglas County and is a member of St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn.
Public school funding would not be affected, she said, as scholarship tax credit programs in other states have proven.
The scholarships would be limited to new entrants at a school, such as those entering kindergarten or moving from a public school. Scholarship donors wouldn’t be able to deduct their donations from their income tax and also receive the tax credit.
An individual or entity would not be able to wipe out their tax liability with the tax credit. Instead, the bill limits the credit to half of what is owed, the senator said. The state total for tax credits for scholarships would be capped at $10 million.
NEW OPTIONS FOR POOR FAMILIES
Many Nebraska parents have options if their child is unhappy at school. They could move to another district, drive to another school or pay tuition at a private school, Linehan said. But families with low incomes – those that might have just one parent, or own one car or no car – don’t have so many options, she said.
“Loving families want a quality education for their children and a system that’s good for them,” said the senator who’s making LB364 her priority bill.
“If children are happy (with their school), who moves them?” she asked. Her bill is aimed at “those who are not thriving or happy.”
The more choices parents and students have, the better, the senator said.
Nebraska has used tax credits to incentivize all sorts of things, she said, including affordable housing, job creation and Main Street revitalization.
“This is a tool our state believes in, Linehan said. “It’s a tool we use, not a newfangled, crazy idea.”
Private schools save the state money and serve the interests of students, families, schools and the state, she said. Public schools couldn’t possibly absorb the 40,000 students currently enrolled in Nebraska’s private schools, she said.
In Douglas County, private school students comprise more than 10% of all students, according to Linehan. In Platte County, that number jumps to 25%.
Of the students attending private schools, 80% of them are in Catholic schools, according to Ekeler. Nebraska ranks 38th in population but 17th in Catholic school enrollment, he said, citing information from the National Catholic Educational Association.
Nebraska’s Catholic schools are supported by a “vibrant, committed base of Catholic families, Ekeler said, and their voices are needed to support LB364. “They need to step out, be heard, be advocates … so other people can take part in the tradition” of Catholic education.
The Opportunity Scholarships Act is overdue, he said.