‘Opportunity Scholarship’ supporters to fight petition drive opposing the tax credits 

Opponents ask why school choice supporters want to avoid public vote

By: - June 16, 2023 1:10 pm

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan details what she views as the impacts of LB 753 on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — People who supported passage of Nebraska’s tax credit for funding scholarships to private K-12 schools announced a campaign Friday against a referendum petition drive that would let voters decide whether to stop the school choice program before it starts.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, who sponsored Legislative Bill 753 and its dollar-for-dollar tax credit, is leading the “Keep Kids First” campaign against signing the petitions. She said Nebraskans should know that the bill was aimed at giving parents and kids in need more options, not cutting funding from public schools.

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)

The State of Nebraska, she said, can support “public schools and choice.” She pointed to legislative efforts this spring to increase state aid to school districts receiving little to none and new state funding for special education.

She said the Nebraska State Education Association, which has led much of the effort to gather signatures to put the issue on the ballot will “say anything for their own self-interest, but not for Nebraska kids.”

“They’re saying that we are taking money away from the public schools,” Linehan said. “It is insulting to the Legislature, which appropriated $300 million in new dollars for education, on top of a billion-dollar Education Future Fund.”

That new funding came with a new state lid on tax asking based on a school district’s potential revenue growth, year over year.

‘Public money for public schools’

The teachers union and others pushing to repeal LB 753 have argued that the tax credit is a way to get around a state constitutional provision prohibiting the use of public money for private or parochial schooling. 

In other states, similar measures to offer state income tax breaks boosted legislative pushes for broader school voucher programs and state-funded charter schools.

The state teachers union is working with a group called “Support Our Schools Nebraska” that is trying to gather at least 90,000 signatures from registered voters by early September to let voters decide on the Opportunity Scholarships Act. The group asked in a statement why politicians oppose having the people weigh in on the tax credit. 

Jenni Benson, president of the NSEA, said a coalition of public school supporters would continue to work toward getting the initiative on the ballot and make sure Nebraskans get to weigh in. She called public interest in signing the petition “overwhelming.”

The Nebraska State Education Association
The Nebraska State Education Association on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

“Nebraskans understand the importance of our public schools and keeping public funds for their local public schools,” she said.

Supporters of other charities have questioned why the state is offering dollar-for-dollar income tax credits of up to $100,000 to individuals and corporations for the scholarships when no other cause gets a status so favored by state law. 

‘Unfair’ to single out scholarship law

Under the law, the annual cap for the tax break will start at $25 million for three years, and could rise by the tenth year to $100 million, or about 10% of what the state spends today on state aid to public schools. 

Linehan said it is unfair to single out her bill for offering tax credits and not others. She said the state has passed tax credits for ethanol, biodiesel and early childhood education. She encouraged people with questions about the bill to read it.

“None of those take money from public schools,” she said sarcastically. “But this one does.”

Debate continues

Gov. Jim Pillen, Linehan, State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha and other supporters of the push for the tax credit say they respect the importance of “fit” in a child’s education and the role of a parent in helping find that fit.

Wayne, who represents part of North Omaha, said Nebraska’s new tax break is a “pro-parent bill,” not “anti-public schools.”

“Parents need more options when the only existing option has been failing kids for generations, which is the case too often in my community,” Wayne said. “This is not just about school choice, it is about equal opportunity, hope.”

Fiscal estimates show about 5,000 more students could attend private schools using the help. As the Nebraska Examiner reported, that shift in student attendance could cut the amount of state aid sent to public school districts by $12 million a year.

Molly Gross, who chairs the Nebraska Parent Teacher Association, said in a statement for “Support Our Schools” that she doesn’t want to drain money from public schools. She worries it will make it harder for the state to address a shortage of teachers.

Kim Schroll, executive vice president of NebraskaLand Bank in North Platte, said in a statement for “Keep Kids First” that people in her community value education in all its forms, public and private, and appreciate “choice.”

Linehan said the teachers union’s aggressive pushback has her ready to join legislative efforts to push for school voucher programs like Iowa’s.

“I have tried not to kick public schools around,” she said. “I know they have a hard job. But why wouldn’t you give every kid the best opportunity they can get?”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.