Pricey spending race underway to allow — or block — voter referendum on new school choice law

NSEA official decries use of paid ‘blockers’ to deter people from signing their petition to repeal ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ law

By: - July 5, 2023 6:26 pm
school choice

So-called “blockers” distributed a petition at a recent outdoor concert at Memorial Park in Omaha asking voters to “decline to sign” a referendum petition seeking repeal of a recently passed law that allows deferral of state tax funds to private school scholarships. (Courtesy of Laura Fisher)

LINCOLN — Forces for and against repeal of a controversial school choice law have spent more than $1.6 million thus far to woo Nebraska voters, according to recent state campaign spending reports.

Spending is expected to rise even further as an effort to repeal the “Opportunity Scholarships Act” signed into law this spring faces an Aug. 30 deadline to submit about 61,000 valid signatures of state voters.

Public education forces say they are making “great progress” in achieving that goal, despite having to dodge “blockers” employed by school choice advocates who have been shadowing “Support Our Schools” petition gatherers at recent public events. That includes the Memorial Park concert in Omaha, the Fourth of July parade in Ralston and a petition signing event at a Lincoln library.

‘Decline to sign’ petition

The blockers, paid by “Keep Kids First,” have been asking voters to sign a nonbinding, “decline to sign” petition, and pro-public school forces claim blockers have been “deceiving” and shouting at potential signers of the referendum petitions.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, leads a public schools rally on April 29 in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“But the opponents’ tactics are not working. Nebraskans support their public schools and want to keep them strong,” said Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association, a prime backer of the “Support Our Schools” referendum.

“We are making great progress toward our goal of 90,000 signatures,” Benson said. “Even in the face of some out-of-state ‘blockers’ shouting at people, lying about the petition, and carrying hateful signs about Nebraska teachers.”

(The 90,000 signatures is a goal to ensure that at least 61,000 are from registered voters.)

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the prime sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarships Act, Legislative Bill 753, said Wednesday that it was public school advocates who are the “scam artists.”

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha speaking at a rally of advocates for private schools earlier this year about her “Opportunity Scholarships” bill. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Linehan said public school advocates are employing paid petition circulators, which defies their claims of a being a totally “grassroots” effort led by teachers.

She said it was also inaccurate to say that her bill — which allows taxpayers to divert half of their state income tax liability to groups that grant scholarships for private and parochial schools — would take away funds from public education.

The initial cost of LB 753 is capped at $25 million a year, though it would rise to $100 million a year after 10 years if the tax break is fully utilized.

‘Tired of hearing that all public schools are great’

Those amounts, Linehan said, pale compared to the $300 million increase in public school funding passed by the Legislature this year, along with a new $1 billion “education future fund” established by Gov. Jim Pillen. The state, the senator said, spends almost $5 billion a year on public education.

 “I’m tired of hearing that all public schools are great. They’re not,” the senator said. “Even a great public school is not the best fit for every kid.”

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 month ago. He is pictured is Jenni Benson, president of the state teachers union. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The war of words comes as the competing groups filed their initial spending reports last week with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. The referendum drive was launched a month ago by public school advocates.

Support Our Schools reported raising $1.26 million, which included an $800,000 infusion from the National Education Association and $262,000 from the NSEA, the Nebraska teachers union.

That spending includes $300,000 for paid petition circulators, who just recently joined the signature gathering effort, according to an official with the NSEA.

Keep Kids First, meanwhile. reported raising $504,810 in June, of which $494,710 came from the American Federation for Children, based in Columbia, Maryland.

Betsy DeVos group promotes school choice

That conservative group, a leading advocate for school choice, was founded by Betsy DeVos, who served as education secretary under former President Donald Trump.

The DeVos group poured about $9 million into state elections last year, backing nearly 200 candidates across the nation. That included spending more than $800,000 in nine Nebraska legislative races in 2022 to back candidates who support school choice.

The spending paid off in the passage of LB 753 after similar school choice measures had failed to pass in the previous six legislative sessions.

Public school advocates maintain that Nebraskans’ ability to sign their petition is being blocked by “thugs” employed by out-of-state interests and that they’re circulating a “fake” petition. Meanwhile, Linehan claimed that the NSEA is trying to divert attention away from the fact that they are getting major funding from out of state, from the national teachers union.

Bill signed into law in May

But now the spending is aimed at either blocking, or supporting, a public vote in 2024 on whether Nebraska should implement the Opportunity Scholarships Act.

The Cornhusker State was one of only two states — North Dakota is the other — that didn’t have any laws directing public funds to private schools until Pillen signed the bill into law in late May.

One petition circulator for Support Our Schools, Laura Fisher, a former Millard teacher who lives in Linehan’s district said paid blockers were deceiving and confusing potential signers of the pro-public schools petition at the recent Memorial Park concert in Omaha.

Shouting at people

“They were telling people that they should sign their form to help with education in Nebraska,” Fisher said. “People would come over to our tent and they would be confused. … They thought they were helping to repeal LB 753.”

She said they were also shouting: “Don’t sign their petition. They don’t care about freedom.”

Such “blocking” activity is legal free speech as long as it’s done “peacefully,” according to a 2008 advisory opinion from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. That opinion also clarified that petition circulators, as well as blockers, must leave private property if asked.

Signing the “Pledge for Education Freedom” distributed by the blockers — which hasn’t been certified by the state — does not nullify a signature on the Support Our Schools petition — which was approved by the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.

Fisher and Benson said Wednesday they believe that the blocking activity is backfiring and that it is serving to get more people to sign the petition to force a referendum on the Opportunity Scholarships Act.  

“People who had no idea what LB 753 was are reading up on it,” Fisher said. “They’re deciding that, yeah, I don’t want my tax dollars going to private schools.”

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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.

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