Support Our Schools says it has enough signatures to reach 2024 Nebraska ballot

Opposing group, Keep Kids First, says it will fight to retain new scholarship tax credits

By: - August 30, 2023 12:52 pm

Volunteers bring boxes into the Secretary of State’s Office for Support Our Schools. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The teacher-led effort to stop Nebraska’s new tax credit for private K-12 school scholarships from siphoning funds bound for the public treasury said they have turned in more than enough signatures to let voters decide the law’s future.

Teachers and other backers of Support Our Schools wheel out boxes of voter-signed petitions seeking to get a repeal of the Opportunity Scholarships Act on the 2024 ballot. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

At a press conference Wednesday in the Cornhusker Marriott in downtown Lincoln, the Support Our Schools group announced it had gathered 117,000 signatures, nearly double the more than 60,000 needed to get the measure on the 2024 general election ballot.

The group said it had gathered signatures from more than 5% of registered voters statewide. Leaders said they did the same in two-thirds of the state’s 93 counties, surpassing the requirement to gather signatures from 5% of the voters in at least 38 counties.

‘A powerful message’

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, the union representing most of the state’s public school teachers, said Nebraskans were sending “a powerful message to elected officials,” and they should listen.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, celebrates gathering more than 117,000 signatures for a petition effort to let voters in 2024 repeal the Opportunity Scholarships Act. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“LB 753 [the Opportunity Scholarships Act] will divert public funds to private schools, and this bill needs to be repealed,” Benson said. “Calling this tax scheme an opportunity scholarship is putting lipstick on a pig. It’s a voucher scheme.”

Benson and volunteer petition circulator Christina Grosshans said the law threatens state funding that might one day be needed for public schools. Some called it a step toward a broader voucher program that could erode the funding and quality of public schools.

Grosshans, who said she and her husband work in the medical field, shared her experience living in North Carolina, where she said she saw public schools decline after public funds started getting diverted to private education.

What the law does

Brad Christian-Sallis of the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table said Nebraskans know this law will eventually take funding from public schools. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 753 creates a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit for individual and corporate donors to scholarships that state lawmakers earmarked first for needy students. 

Donors can earn tax credits of up to $100,000, and estates and trusts can receive up to $1 million. The amount of state revenue that can be claimed for the tax break is capped at $25 million a year for three years and could rise by the tenth year to $100 million. That would be  about 10% of the more than $1 billion the state spends today on state aid to public schools. 

Defenders of the scholarship program and the tax break, including sponsoring State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, have said students in failing public schools need options and often can’t access a public school of their choice, even with open enrollment.

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)

“Our biggest goal was to keep (the law) from being suspended,” Linehan said. “If they want to fight to keep kids from receiving scholarships that they’re already receiving next fall, I welcome that fight.”

She and the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which represents dioceses that operate schools that stand to receive funding from kids in the K-12 scholarship program, argued that once Nebraskans see the impact of this legislation on needy families, they will embrace the change.

Support Our Schools said Nebraskans are always free to make charitable donations for private school scholarships. If Nebraskans repeal LB 753, the group said, the donations will remain charitable but won’t be paid for by diverting owed income taxes.

Fighting for choice

Keep Kids First, the school-choice advocacy group who opposed the petition drive, issued a statement saying it would keep pushing back against misinformation and disinformation about the new law.

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

“Support Our Schools spent months blatantly and indisputably lying about the Opportunity Scholarships Act,” it said. “They are obsessively attempting to rip opportunity away from children and families that need it most.”

The group said it would begin campaigning to protect Nebraska’s first significant school choice legislation in years.

Support Our Schools has argued that petition circulators and petition blockers for their opponents have made mistakes of understanding what the petition would do but that they have tried to train and educate circulators on what the law does. Both sides have shared video evidence of misleading interactions with voters.

Leaders of Support our Schools have said they were not attempting to get enough signatures to suspend the law. They said they only wanted Nebraska voters to have a chance to weigh in on the law.

Governor weighs in

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen weighed in, calling out the “union bosses running this political campaign.” He said the group failed to get the 10% of signatures needed to keep LB 753 from offering its first tax credits before the referendum.

“If this initiative makes it onto the 2024 ballot, I can promise you the fight will not be over,” Pillen said. “I have confidence in education, both public and private. I will continue to make sure each student in Nebraska has the educational freedom to choose where they want to attend school.”

The governor reiterated his argument that the Opportunity Scholarships Act was part of a broader education package that included the state’s first investments toward a pledged $1 billion Education Future Fund to relieve property taxes.

Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand for Schools, said Nebraskans tried to tell people they don’t want vouchers or charters and that they want the very best public schools in the nation. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The Education Future Fund pledges $1,500 in baseline state aid per student to every public school district, including smaller, often rural districts that had received little or no state funding. The fund also pledges state revenue to supplement available federal dollars to pick up 80% of K-12 special education costs. 

Pillen and Linehan have hinted that the teachers union, by trying to get rid of LB 753, could put the package’s additional funding for public schools at risk. Linehan has said she might be open to passing broader school choice legislation in 2024.

Union responds

Tim Royers of the NSEA and others have said the state cannot guarantee it will continue to provide the pledged amount, especially if it hits a recession. They say that is why it’s important to protect state revenues for future use.

On Wednesday, Royers again mentioned the Legislature’s fiscal estimate for the impact of LB 753, which predicts state aid could decrease by $12 million if students transfer from certain public school districts to private schools.

The Rev. Michael Williams, president of the Omaha NAACP, said he and others in his community understand that this tax credit is a shift of funds from a public good to a private benefit for the rich. He said it would widen the gap between rich and poor.

Students in north Omaha who attend private schools on donor-funded scholarships have argued that more could attend private schools with state help. Williams said the students already attending or planning to attend private schools would reap most of the help.

Keep Kids First said that was wrong, pointing to a section of the law that limits scholarships to students not currently attending a private school. The law, however, will fund current private school students moving to a high school.

Future of schools, kids

The Rev. Michael Williams, president of the Omaha NAACP, said he was proud to see local support for the petition effort. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Mary Phillips, president of ARC of Nebraska, which serves Nebraskans with disabilities, said public schools include all kids and private schools choose their students. (They educate some special needs students, often with public school help.)

Molly Gross, legislative chair of the Parent-Teacher Association of Nebraska, said voters are letting the Legislature know they want a say on this issue because nine of 10 Nebraska K-12 students attend public school.

Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand for Schools Nebraska, said Nebraskans have tried to tell lawmakers that they want “the very best public schools in the nation” and don’t want other states’ ideas for vouchers or charter schools.

“Nebraskans know better,” Guereca said.

Benson said no similar petition effort in other states she had spoken with had faced as concentrated an effort to peel off signatures from people who had signed petitions.

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)

Royers said signature gatherers appreciated the money opponents spent because it made their job easier. He said it raised public awareness and increased the number of signatures they collected. 

Both sides said they were ready for the fight ahead.

What’s ahead

In many states, the passage of a similar scholarship program has been the first step toward broader school choice legislation, where the public money set aside for each student follows that student to the school of their choice. 

The final number of valid signatures needed will be determined by the close of business Wednesday. That’s when the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office will receive updated voter registration numbers from counties. Consultants expect the number needed will be between 61,000 and 64,000.


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.

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.