Think tank’s polling found 55% of Nebraskans oppose ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ Act

Leading supporter of new law questions if poll was ‘honest’

By: - July 13, 2023 1:22 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)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional comment.

LINCOLN — The Lincoln-based think tank OpenSky Policy Institute released a poll Thursday showing that 55% of respondents would vote to repeal a new state law that diverts state tax payments to groups providing private and parochial school scholarships.

The telephone/text message poll of 600 likely voters was done May 31 to June 1 by a Washington, D.C., polling firm, Lake Research Partners. The margin of error was plus or minus 4%.

In the polling, 47% of respondents “strongly” backed repeal, compared to 37% who expressed any level of support to vote to retain the legislation.

The polling should be welcome news for those backing an effort to repeal Legislative Bill 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, via a voter referendum. They have long maintained that Nebraskans do not support diverting public funds to private schools.

Rebecca Firestone, executive director of OpenSky Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank in Nebraska. (Courtesy of OpenSky)

Rebecca Firestone, executive director of OpenSky, said the polling also showed that Nebraskans would rather see increased investments in vocational and career training programs for educators and addressing the shortage of teachers instead of a $25 million outlay for tax credits for private school scholarships.

“Voters overwhelmingly said those should be the priorities for spending tax dollars for education in Nebraska,” Firestone said in a press release.

But a leading supporter of Opportunity Scholarships, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, took issue with the polling, including poll questions stating that the law reduces funding for public education.

Linehan said that’s not true given that state funding for public education was increased by $1.3 billion this year.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

 “If they really wanted an honest poll, why not read the wording of the petition?” she asked.

A group called “Support Our Schools Nebraska,” led by the state teachers union, is currently gathering signatures to place a referendum on the law on the 2024 ballot.

OpenSky is among those supporting the repeal. The organization contributed nearly $55,000 in funds and staff time to Support Our Schools, according to its most recent state political spending report.

The Opportunity Scholarships Act allow donors to devote up to half of their state income tax payments to organizations that grant scholarships for students to attend private or parochial schools. LB 753 initially caps the total of yearly tax breaks at $25 million, but it could rise to $100 million a year if the funding is fully utilized.

Firestone said that OpenSky, which studies state spending, has consistently opposed private school tax credit proposals such as LB 753.

She said that diverting state tax funds to private and parochial school scholarships takes away general funds that could go to public schools or other state priorities, such as highways or affordable housing.

Supporters of LB 753, which include Gov. Jim Pillen, have said it is unfair that lower income families do not have the same opportunity financially to send their kids to private schools as do more wealthy families.

They maintain that public school advocates are “short-sighted” in their complaints about losing funds in a year when state lawmakers approved a $300 million increase in public school funding and Pillen established a $1 billion “education future fund” for schools.

Linehan added the she was able to get bills passed in the last two sessions that provide student loan forgiveness and bonuses for new teachers, as well as grants for additional teacher training.

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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.