Gov. Pillen doubles down on support for school choice with $100,000 donation

Teacher union chief decries donations from Trump aide Betsy DeVos, while senator says it’s ‘unions versus children’

By: - October 3, 2023 5:50 pm

State Sens. Lou Ann Linehan and Justin Wayne flank Gov. Jim Pillen after he signed LB 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, into law on May 30. (Courtesy of the Nebraska Governor’s Office)

LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen has doubled down on his support for an “opportunity scholarships” bill he signed into law this year, contributing $100,000 to the campaign to fend off an effort to repeal it.

The latest campaign finance statements submitted by the Keep Kids First committee indicates that it collected more than $701,000 in contributions over the past two months, pushing its total receipts to retain Legislative Bill 753 to $1.45 million.

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)

By contrast, the Support Our Schools committee, which is seeking to force a referendum to repeal the law on the 2024 ballot, reported $420,000 in cash and in-kind donations from July to September. That brings their total receipts this year to $1.74 million.

In August, Support Our Schools said it submitted more than enough signatures — an estimated 117,000 signatures, nearly double what’s needed — to place its referendum to repeal LB 753 on the 2024 general election ballot.

Verification process ongoing

The Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office, as of Tuesday, had not yet completed its verification process.

The pricey battle pits public school advocates, who maintain that LB 753 is a preliminary step to charter schools and a drain on public education, against school choice advocates, who argue that not all students thrive in public schools and some need financial help to afford private school tuition.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who sponsored LB 753, said Tuesday that the donations from Pillen and others demonstrates that “there are a lot of Nebraskans who think we should have school choice.”

“It’s unions versus kids,” Linehan said, noting that most of the Support Our Schools donations came from national and state teachers unions.

But Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said that “all Nebraskans should be troubled by these uber-wealthy individuals giving huge $100,000 contributions in their attempt to deny Nebraskans the right to vote on this important issue.”

DeVos group spent heavily

She added that an out-of-state special interest group founded by former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent $710,000 on legislative races in 2022 to get pro-school choice candidates elected, and had spent $583,000 by August on efforts to thwart the Support Our Schools petition drive.

Pillen’s $100,000 donation was among the largest given recently to the drive to oppose the repeal effort.

Also giving $100,000 was C.L. Werner, the founder and former CEO of the Omaha-based trucking company Werner Enterprises.

Tom Peed, a major giver to Republican campaigns and founder of Sandhills Publishing in Lincoln, gave $75,000, as did a son, Shawn Peed, the current CEO of Sandhills.

Other notable donations were $25,000 from U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, the former Nebraska governor; and $50,000 from Omaha cattleman James Timmerman.

DeVos group contributes

The American Federation for Children, a national school choice group founded by DeVos who served during the Trump Administration, reported providing $103,000 of in-kind services over the past two months, on top of its previous cash contributions of $583,000.

The largest donations during the past two months to Support Our Schools were $100,000 from the Nebraska State Education Association and $62,000 from the National Education Association. The two teachers unions have given $471,000 and $862,000, respectively, so far in cash and in-kind donations.

The largest, recent donation from an individual to SOS was $20,000 from Lincoln businessman James Woollam.


LB 753 allows taxpayers to divert up to half of their state income tax liability to organizations that provide scholarships to children to attend K-12 private or parochial schools.

The program, similar to school choice programs adopted in some other states, is capped at $25 million the first year. But if all of the tax credits are utilized, it could rise to $100 million a year within a decade.

It was labeled the “Opportunity Scholarship Act” because it is designed to help low-income families who might not be able to afford private school tuition for their children.

But opponents of the law says it is the first step to a voucher program that provides public dollars to attend private schools, and serves to siphon away tax dollars that could be used for other state purposes.

Nebraska was one of only two states in the nation that had no school choice laws until Pillen signed LB 753 into law.


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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.