State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair introduces one of his bills before the Education Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker encouraged a legislative committee Tuesday to allow students to use state funds toward private schools if they are denied a school district transfer.
Legislative Bill 528, proposed by State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, would create the Nebraska Option Enrollment Tuition Account Program. Option enrollment is when students seek to opt into a school district that isn’t their home district. But some districts turn away such requests. LB 528 would allow students in such cases to tap state funds to attend a private school.
“I want you to create options within option enrollment, guaranteeing that there’s a path forward for students who have been denied,” Hansen told the Education Committee.
Under the bill, a student whose option enrollment application is denied could apply to the State Board of Education for an Option Enrollment Tuition Account, which could be used for tuition and fees at a private, denominational or parochial school.
The amount deposited by the Board of Education would be equal to the adjusted average per-pupil cost of the student’s previous school, which is calculated from the education funding plan Gov. Jim Pillen and some state senators are seeking to change this session. Students who have a disability would receive additional funds under the program.
Therefore, Hansen said, the money would be taken from the state’s general funds, not from public schools.
Dawnell Glunz, an instructor at Grand Island Central Catholic, testified in support of LB 528 and said the bill is not about a fight between public and private schools.
“Students deserve an education which is tailored to their specific needs,” Glunz said. “This rings true for all students but in a unique way for students who are on an IEP [individualized educational plan] or 504.”
Some opponents expressed concern some parents may “abuse” the system and send their students to different schools using the assistance.
But Glunz said that’s never been the case in her 36 years of teaching special education; there’s always a reason behind the change, she said.
A freshman at Grand Island Central Catholic who was denied an option enrollment request said his support at GICC helped him move from an IEP to a 504 support plan. However, the move came without financial support and brought financial consequences to his family.
An IEP is a program developed around an individual child’s needs while a 504 plan provides equal access to education for people with disabilities.
“LB 528 is not about making every school fit every kid,” Hansen said. “It’s about every kid having a chance to find a school that best fits them.”
Connie Knoche, education policy director for the OpenSky Policy Institute, said Hansen’s bill would essentially allow the state to pay for private education.
Knoche said there is also concern over the long-term effects of Hansen’s bill, which has an unknown fiscal impact, and she expressed worry about how the program would be funded in practice.
It’s also unclear whether a student would need to be rejected for option enrollment year after year to receive continued financial aid, Knoche added.
Jacob Carmichael of Bennington told the committee the bill could harm Nebraska youth, especially trans and other LGBTQ Nebraskans, he said, if private schools do not have nondiscrimination policies.
“I congratulate you all in obfuscating your responsibility, pushing education out to religious organizations and not doing what this committee is designed or supposed to do at all,” Carmichael said.
Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand For Schools, which advocates to protect public schools and public school funding, raised concerns about how the state would monitor and maintain accountability over the tuition accounts.
Privatization, Guereca said, could harm communities of color and said public school funds shouldn’t be used for private schools.
The next generation
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha pushed back on some opponents who testified against the bill without offering solutions beyond increasing education funding generally.
“There has to be more than just that,” Wayne said.
Waiting any longer to provide more options for students could result in another generation of kids being left behind, he told one testifier.
“I have two years left. I don’t want to keep saying, ‘Let’s wait,’” Wayne said. “I need an answer for these families.”
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