Public schools supporters launch drive to put school choice bill on ballot

State teachers union and other groups have 90 days to gather more than 61,000 valid signatures

By: - June 6, 2023 4:22 pm
School choice

The Rev. T. Michael Williams, at left, president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, was the first person to sign the “Support Our Schools” petition a week ago. Also pictured is Jenni Benson, president of the state teacher’s union. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — To chants of “sign the petition,” a coalition of public education supporters launched an effort Tuesday to place a referendum before voters on a newly passed school choice law.

The group, called “Support Our Schools Nebraska,” is seeking to gather at least 90,000 signatures of registered voters in the next 90 days to force a referendum vote in 2024 on the Opportunity Scholarships Act.

The school choice measure provides a generous state tax break for donations toward scholarships for students to attend private or parochial schools and is seen by education groups as a foot-in-the-door for even more controversial school choice measures, such as voucher programs and state-funded charter schools.

‘Public funds for public schools’

“Public funds should be used for what?” asked Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association.

“Public schools,” shouted about 50 supporters standing behind her on the north steps of the State Capitol.

Dunixi Guereca
Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand For Schools, a public schools advocacy group. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Speakers at the rally condemned Legislative Bill 753 as providing a unique and overly generous tax break for mostly wealthy taxpayers and corporations for private schooling.

They said that Nebraska voters — as they have three times in the past — will do what state senators failed to do and reject the diversion of state tax funds for private and parochial schools.

“Statewide polling is consistent and clear on this: Nebraskans support public education and do not believe in tax schemes that will benefit a select few while decimating and de-funding the neighborhood schools,” said Dunixi Guereca, of Stand For Schools, an education policy and advocacy organization.

Bill provides choice for at-risk kids

Defenders of the Opportunity Scholarships Act, including Gov. Jim Pillen, said it would provide new options for “vulnerable and at-risk children” at a time when state funding for public education has been increased dramatically.

State Sens. Lou Ann Linehan and Justin Wayne flank Gov. Jim Pillen after he signs LB 753, related to opportunity scholarships, into law  May 30, 2023, in Lincoln. (Courtesy of the Governor’s Office)

Tom Venzor of the Nebraska Catholic Conference called the referendum drive “disgraceful” and “all-out political warfare against children in need of better educational opportunities.”

“Rather than respecting parents as the primary educators of their children, the teachers union is literally stripping educational opportunities out of the hands of low-income students, military families, students with disabilities, kids who’ve been bullied, and children in the foster care system,” Venzor said in a statement.

Said Pillen in a column published Tuesday: “These scholarships will go to those students who need them most. They will provide students the ability to attend a school they otherwise could never afford.” 

The 33 state senators who voted to approve LB 753 signed a letter released Tuesday by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan — the bill’s main sponsor.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Linehan said the NSEA was being “very short-sighted” in a year when state funding for K-12 public schools was increased by $305 million a year, and a $1 billion “Education Future Fund” was created to offset property taxes.

Nebraska was one of only two states that didn’t provide some sort of public funds for private education until Pillen signed the bill into law last week.

Mainly a tax break for the wealthy

T. Michael Williams, a Baptist preacher from North Omaha and the president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, was the first person to sign a petition.

Williams maintained that the scholarship law won’t help many children of color or in low-income families but will be mainly a tax break for the wealthy.

Rebecca Firestone of the OpenSky Policy Institute said donations to cancer societies and public education foundations only result in a tax deduction of “less than a dime for every dollar donated.”

Jane Erdenberger
Jane Erdenberger, a member of the Omaha School Board, is among those urging Nebraskans to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships Act. OPS opposed the measure. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

Under LB 753, a donor gets a dollar-for-dollar tax break of up to $100,000 of their income tax liability, she said. So if someone owed $200,000 in state income taxes, $100,000 of it could be diverted to a private school “scholarship granting organization.”

Firestone said a study of three states with a similar scholarship program — Arizona, Louisiana and Virginia — found that 60% of the tax breaks went to households with incomes above $200,000.

Others said that private/parochial schools are not accountable or accredited like public schools and are not required to have accredited teachers. They can “cherry-pick” which students they will admit, to the detriment of students with physical or learning disabilities.

‘Simply bad policy’

“It’s simply bad state policy,” said Dave Welsch, a school board member in Milford, adding that similar bills had failed to pass in six previous sessions.

“It incentivizes one charitable organization for donations over thousands of other worthy causes,” he said, mentioning churches, food banks, pregnancy centers and homeless shelters.

The tax break offered in LB 753 would be initially capped at $25 million a year, but could grow in a few years to $100 million, which is about 10% of current state aid to public schools. Backers of LB 753, however, maintain that plenty of other tax credit programs reduce state revenue.

It is estimated that 5,000 additional students would attend private or parochial schools under the act. A fiscal noted generated for LB 753 projected that the shift of students could reduce state aid to public schools by nearly $12 million a year.

About 61,000 valid signatures required

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.

The drive is expected to generate an expensive political campaign if the issue qualifies for the ballot.

A national group financially backed by Betsy DeVos, a millionaire former U.S. secretary of Education in the Trump administration, poured more than $700,000 into eight key Nebraska state legislative races last fall to get pro-school choice candidates elected. And the NSEA is a heavy spender on legislative races and ballot issues.

Former State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year, attended Tuesday’s rally. She said she had been hired to raise funds for the referendum push.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.