Keep Kids First calls on Support Our Schools to stop petition drive on tax credit

Nebraska teachers union says it will protect state funding for kids in public schools

By: - August 15, 2023 10:10 pm

Jayleesha Cooper, a former Holy Name student who received a privately funded scholarship to the school, spoke in defense of the tax credit for scholarships to private K-12 schools. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Flanked by students touring a Catholic school in North Omaha, advocates of Nebraska’s new tax credit for scholarships to private K-12 schools called on the state teachers union Tuesday to stop fighting a law they said would help poor and minority students.

A union spokeswoman said the premise pushed by tax credit supporters is wrong. She said taking $25 million a year or more out of state coffers is bad for communities of color and largely helps the wealthy. The spokeswoman said it risks future funding that could be spent on public schools, which 90% of Nebraska students attend.

Parents in North Omaha listen to the pitch from Keep Kids First, which advocates for protecting Nebraska’s new Opportunity Scholarships Act. The law offers tax credits for donors providing scholarships to low-income kids to private K-12 schools. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Group: Fund scholarships to help kids

Tanya Santos, a former principal at Holy Name Catholic School, stood in the school’s parking lot with Jayleesha Cooper, a former Holy Name student who received a privately funded scholarship. Both stressed the value of the tax credit passed by the Legislature this spring giving more Nebraska children the same chance. Cooper said people who care about kids would listen to the families telling you, “This is what I need.”

“I actually attended this amazing school behind me, only thanks to private donor scholarships,” Cooper said. “Without scholarships, that would not have been a reality for me, and it would not have been a reality for many of the students standing next to me today.” 

Santos acknowledged that most private schools already offer students need-based scholarships funded by private donors. But she said many end up on waiting lists that could be shortened with more donors, partly because of the dollar-for-dollar tax credit the Legislature passed in May.

“Students in poverty are disproportionately affected by achievement gaps across our state,” Santos said. “The teachers union is fighting against students who need another school option that is the best fit for them.”

Standing behind her was State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, one of Nebraska’s two African American lawmakers, both of whom supported Legislative Bill 753. He and State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha have said they want Nebraska families to have a choice when it comes to schools.

NAACP: Keep funding for public schools, students

The Rev. Michael Williams, who leads the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, supports the teachers union in seeking to repeal the new law. He said that, based on what’s happened in other states, he thinks the Opportunity Scholarships Act is a first step toward diverting funds from public schools and sending them to private and parochial schools, which don’t have to accept every student.

The Rev. Michael Williams, president of the Omaha chapter of the NAACP, supports the teachers union in seeking to repeal the new Opportunity Scholarships Act. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

He pointed to efforts that fell short in the Nebraska Legislature to hold private schools to the same requirements as public schools in terms of not turning students away. Public schools must accept all students, including those on behavior plans.

Lawmakers need to provide public schools with “the funding that they need,” Williams said. He said he would rather see parents and the state put their energy into improving public schools instead of  creating and partially funding a second school system before they fully fund the first.

“I think it (the new law) continues to divide our society,” Williams said. “It continues to create haves and have nots. I don’t think that’s what we want. We want all of our kids to get a chance at a great education.”

Brad Christian-Sallis of the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, a former Holy Name student, argued to keep funds in the public treasury that he said might be better spent on public schools. He said communities of color are the most likely to be hurt if state revenue is lost to the tax credit.

Taking money that lawmakers could steer toward public schools risks those “cornerstones of our communities” to give “tax breaks to the wealthy.” He said that is not “how we build a future and a Nebraska where our kids can fly.” 

How the law works

Under the new law, the tax break is capped at $25 million a year 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.

Brad Christian-Sallis of the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table and a former Holy Name student, said he would prefer public funds be spent on public schools. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Support Our Schools Nebraska, the petition circulators, must gather signatures from 5% of registered voters at the time of submission, roughly 60,000 valid signatures, by the close of business Aug. 30. The organizers of that effort have said they expect to reach their goal. 

Keep Kids First, the group urging Nebraskans not to sign the petition, is pushing people to remove their names if they have already signed. The group argues some people are being misled by petition circulators.

If the measure collects enough signatures, voters would decide in the November 2024 election whether to retain or reject the Opportunity Scholarships Act. Similar measures in other states have led to hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, in outside spending on campaigns for and against the issue.

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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.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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