Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen hosts a signing ceremony for LB 753, the opportunity scholarships proposal by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, at center left, on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska will soon allow public tax credits for private school education, after the governor signed the bill into law Tuesday.
Gov. Jim Pillen signed Legislative Bill 753, the seven-years-long fight led by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn on the “Opportunity Scholarships” initiative. Lawmakers gave final approval last week on a 33-11 vote.
In its first year, LB 753 would set aside $25 million in tax credits toward scholarships designed to support families of students who otherwise could not attend private schools — a “choice” between public and private schools.
“Now when a child in your family or your neighbor’s child or their niece or nephew needs help, you’ll be able to point them in a place where they can find hope,” Linehan said at the bill’s signing.
The bill sets up a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for individuals or corporations who donate to a “scholarship granting organization” distributing such scholarships for parochial and private schools.
Depending on demand, the $25 million limit could grow to $100 million a year.
While there is option enrollment, allowing students to “option” into a different public school district, there is no similar method of allowing funds to support families for private education.
The Nebraska State Education Association has already vowed to work to repeal the law and has laid the groundwork for collecting voter signatures to place the issue on the ballot.
Opponents, including the NSEA, argue taxpayer dollars should instead be invested in strengthening public schools, which “are open to all children, subject to state curriculum standards and supported by the vast majority of Nebraskans in annual polls.”
“Voucher tax schemes like LB 753 funnel money away from our already-underfunded public schools and children and give tax dollars to private schools, including those that discriminate against children and their families,” states the website for “Support Our Schools Nebraska,” the organization seeking to overturn the law.
Pillen said the teacher’s union is trying to “shoot at” LB 753, which could be a “key part” of the state’s future.
“Last time I checked, we’re supposed to support every one of our kids so they get the education that they deserve to become an incredible Nebraskan and give back to the state of Nebraska,” Pillen said.
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, whose support of LB 753 became pivotal to its passage, quoted Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X in saying that “education is our passport to the future and that tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”
Wayne said his community cannot wait 50 years for changes in the public education system, which is “not a negative or a knock on public schools.”
“This is actually a way for us to empower parents to make sure they can control their educational outcomes within their community regardless of their income level,” Wayne said.
Stand For Schools, an organization that advocates for public schools and public school funding, said in a statement that LB 753 would instead lead to the defunding of public schools.
The organization criticized the measure as benefiting primarily religious institutions, which could lead to discrimination against students, families and staff.
“Together with the Support Our Schools Nebraska coalition, we will ensure LB 753 is on the 2024 ballot so that voters can have a say in the future of their community schools,” the Stand For Schools statement reads.
The Nebraska Catholic Conference’s Jeremy Ekeler also spoke Tuesday in support of LB 753.
“Kids get one shot at an education, and we must all protect the rights of parents in choosing the best education for their children,” Ekeler said in a statement.
According to Pillen, the bill’s $25 million credits are a “drop in the bucket” compared to new funding for public schools and the state’s overall budget.
Nebraska children need extraordinary public and private education, he said, with LB 753 seeking to support children in poverty or foster care and those who need a different setting.
“This is not about who’s better or who’s worse,” Pillen said. “It’s about the right fit for our kids.”
Tanya Santos, principal of Holy Name School in Omaha, said her children and grandchildren attended a mix of public and private schools. But as a single mother, she said, she wouldn’t have been able to send her children to private school if not for scholarships and financial aid.
Santos said the “historic signing” of LB 753 will give future opportunities to all Nebraska youths, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“Our kids are now going to have an opportunity for hope and not just the idea of hope of imagining a better future but the intention and the purpose to attain that better future based upon this hope,” Santos said.
LB 753 will go into effect about three months after the Legislature adjourns, which is slated for either this week or next.
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