By Paul Hamel
LINCOLN — Nebraska would join 48 other states in offering “school choice” under a bill given final approval Wednesday.
Proponents of the “Opportunity Scholarships Act” said it will allow low-income families the opportunity to send their kids to private and parochial schools via the generous tax breaks offered to those donating funds for private school scholarships.
“This is about choice … it’s about time we got this done,” said State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who has worked seven years to get a school choice bill passed.
Legislative Bill 753, which passed on a 33-11 vote, now heads to Gov. Jim Pillen, who has pledged to sign it into law.
It marked another victory for conservative forces in the Nebraska Legislature which, in past years, has declined to pass laws that direct public funds to private and parochial schools.
Critics called it a “dark new era” for education in Nebraska, condemning the bill as an overly generous tax break for mostly wealthy Nebraskans and corporations that could violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
The powerful state teachers union has already organized an effort to put the school choice bill on the ballot in 2024, in hopes that voters will overturn it.
“The majority of Nebraskans oppose giving public tax dollars to private schools and have rejected such attempts at the ballot box three times previously,” said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association.
Benson said other states that have adopted “tax voucher schemes” ended up damaging public schools and communities.
“This is not the future we want for our young people in Nebraska nor our communities,” she said.
Linehan and others pushed back on criticism that LB 753 would take away funds from public schools.
The bill initially would set aside $25 million a year in tax credits for those who donate to a “scholarship granting organization” that distributes scholarships to parochial and private schools. That allocation could eventually rise to $100 million a year, depending on the demand for tax credits.
$25 million pales in comparison
Albion Sen. Tom Briese said the $25 million pales in comparison to the more than $2 billion a year the state grants for public education and tax credits focused on property taxes paid for schools.
Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents sections of north Omaha, said the bill would be “transformational” for his low-income district by providing an option to parents that they previously couldn’t afford.
Wayne, a former member of the Omaha School Board, said private schools are already making a difference for some kids in his area. Other proponents said states such as Florida have seen rises in academic achievement in part due to school choice.
“Get out of the political talk and look at the fundamental change we’re making in the community,” Wayne said.
But Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer said the dollar-for-dollar tax credit was more lucrative than what is given to any other charitable cause.
Lincoln Sen. George Dungan said in Arizona, two large scholarship granting organizations misused their donations and that after school choice was adopted there, private schools raised their tuition, thus pricing out some middle-income families from choosing private schools. The number of students of color in private Arizona schools didn’t rise, he added.
“What we have seen in other states and other circumstances is that they do not help the kids they’ve intended to help,” Dungan said.
Under LB 753, taxpayers could donate half of their state income tax liability of up to $100,000 to private school scholarships. Thus, it allows a taxpayer to divert those funds from use for other state services, including higher education and K-12 public schools.
Schools conduct ‘social experiments’
It’s estimated that the bill will allow an additional 5,000 students to switch to private schools in Nebraska.
Gering Sen. Brian Hardin said LB 753 would “level the playing field,” allowing all families who are concerned about bullying or other issues in a public school a choice of private or religious schooling.
“They’re also very concerned, in some cases, about social experiments with their child serving as the petri dish,” Hardin said.
“They’re not excited about what that does to a child’s psyche, development, faith and moral well-being,” he said. “They would like another option.