State teachers union files petitions to repeal new ‘school choice’ law

Gov. Pillen, Sen. Linehan fire back, saying NSEA seeks to limit competition for students

By: - May 31, 2023 4:09 pm

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 ink was barely dry on a new law allowing generous tax breaks for donations for private schooling before the state’s powerful teachers union launched an effort to repeal it.

On Wednesday, language for a ballot referendum repealing Legislative Bill 754 was filed with the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.

The effort, by a group called “Support Our Schools” and backed by the Nebraska State Educational Association, seeks to place the issue before voters on the ballot in 2024.

‘Harmful bill’

“Our goal is to give Nebraskans the opportunity to vote to repeal this harmful bill,” said Jenni Benson, the president of the NSEA and a Support Our Schools Nebraska petition sponsor.

Public schools, Benson said, educate nine out of 10 kids in Nebraska, and that “strong public schools support a strong Nebraska and a strong economy.”

“Diverting millions of tax dollars to private schools will hurt our public schools as well as other essential public services and infrastructure,” she said.

Governor, Linehan fire back

Gov. Jim Pillen and the lead sponsor of the bill, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, both fired back at the teacher’s union.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan explains the impacts of LB 753 on Tuesday in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Linehan said she was “beyond frustrated” by the NSEA’s claims “especially in a year, when the Legislature and the governor have created a billion-dollar education future fund and provided another $305 million in annual funding.”

And their concern is $25 million for low-income kids?” she asked, referring to the initial cost of LB 753.

Pillen, in a press release, said he was confident that Nebraska voters would reject any attempt to overturn the law.

“The NSEA’s attempt to overturn the Opportunity Scholarships Act is an attack on our kids and their educational opportunities,” Pillen said.

LB 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, provides a tax credit of up to $100,000 for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to private and parochial K-12 schools. The priority for the scholarships would be low-income children.

Gives low-income families a choice

Linehan has argued that public schools don’t work for every student and that while middle- and high-income families can afford to send their child to a religious or private school, low-income families don’t have that option.

The law is expected to increase private school students by about 5,000.

Nebraska was one of only two states that didn’t offer some sort of “school choice” until Pillen signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The bill initially would set aside $25 million a year in tax credits for those who donate to a “scholarship granting organization.” That allocation could eventually rise to $100 million a year, depending on the demand for tax credits.

About 61,000 signatures needed

NSEA, in a press release Wednesday, said that the loss in revenue could be up to $600 million by 2034. That would negatively affect funding for public schools as well as other state services, the organization said.

Linehan said that the amount of funding is small compared to other tax incentive programs and that the NSEA hasn’t objected to other tax credits in the past.

She said that the union opposed the bill because it didn’t want “competition” for students.

To qualify the referendum for the ballot, about 61,000 valid signatures of registered voters would have to be collected. To suspend the law from going into effect until a vote can be held would require about 122,000 signatures, or about 10% of the total registered voters in the state.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.