State teachers union organizes to hold referendum vote on ‘opportunity scholarship’ bill
School choice bill hasn’t won final approval yet; sponsor calls effort by NSEA ‘silliness’
Parents, educators, school leaders and members of the public flood the steps of the Nebraska State Capitol in support of public schools and against an “Opportunity Scholarships” measure on April 29, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — The state teachers union has already organized a campaign committee to challenge the “Opportunity Scholarships Act,” even though the measure hasn’t yet been approved by the Nebraska Legislature.
The “Support Our Schools Nebraska” committee was recently filed with the state sunshine commission, and a Support Our Schools website is already up.
LB 753 awaits final debate
The website calls for donations and for volunteers to gather signatures to put a referendum on the 2024 ballot to overturn the not-yet-approved Legislative Bill 753.
The bill advanced to final-round debate a month ago on a 33-11 vote, putting Nebraska at the doorstep of having its first school choice program.
Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said Tuesday that if LB 753 is signed into law, her organization will seek to allow voters to repeal.
“Three times previously, Nebraska voters have rejected public dollars for private education at the ballot box,” Benson said. “If a majority of state lawmakers continue to ignore the wishes of Nebraska voters, we will do all we can to allow voters to repeal this harmful, ill-advised legislation.”
Time is of the essence — under state law, signatures gathered to force a referendum vote must be turned in within 90 days of the end of the legislative session, which this year would mean a deadline in early September.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the main sponsor of LB 753, called the effort led by NSEA “silliness” given the large increases in spending on public education in the works this year. Those include a $1 billion education “future fund” proposed by Gov. Jim Pillen, increased funding for special education services and financial incentives for teachers to remain in the field.
“And they’re going to spend $2- to $3 million (on a referendum campaign) because they don’t want other kids to have an opportunity?” Linehan said. “It just boggles my mind.”
Her LB 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, would allow individuals and corporations to earn a tax credit, allowing them to direct 50% of their state tax liability to organizations that provide scholarships to private and parochial, K-12 schools.
Initially, up to $25 million a year would be allowed for the Opportunity Scholarships tax credits. Scholarships — estimated to be about $5,000 each — would be prioritized for children in poverty.
Nebraska and North Dakota are the only two states that do not provide some kind of “school choice.” North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a private school voucher bill last month that state lawmakers had passed.
Options for low-income families
Linehan and other backers of LB 753 maintain that low-income families should have the same opportunity to choose a private school as well-heeled families.
Opponents, led by the NSEA, argue that diverting $25 million a year to private schools takes funds away from public education. They question whether LB 753 is constitutional and whether its passage would lead to more extensive school choice measures, such as state vouchers to attend private schools.
Linehan said Tuesday she’s confident that she’ll have the 33 votes necessary to pass LB 753. Gov. Jim Pillen is a supporter, so his signature is assured.
But the NSEA and other public school supporters are banking on Nebraska voters rejecting school choice if given that opportunity.
School choice measures, historically, haven’t done well across the nation.
The nonprofit, Florida-based news site, flaglerlive.com, has reported that of the 16 referendums presented to voters nationwide on school choice, 14 were rejected.
The website reported that of the 121 school choice programs created across the U.S., only two have been approved by voters.
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