Public school advocates qualify referendum on ‘opportunity scholarship’ law for 2024 election

‘Nebraskans want to vote on diverting public tax dollars to pay for private schools,’ says state teachers union leader

By: - October 10, 2023 5:38 pm

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)

LINCOLN — As expected, a signature drive to repeal a new and controversial “opportunity scholarships” law has qualified for a public vote on the 2024 general election ballot.

Tuesday afternoon, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office confirmed that Support Our Schools Nebraska had submitted more than enough valid signatures to force a referendum on Legislative Bill 753, or the Opportunity Scholarships Act.

Public school advocates have condemned the law as a roundabout way to funnel public tax dollars to finance private schools.

The law allows taxpayers to designate up to half of their state income tax payment to an organization that provides scholarships to private and parochial, K-12 schools. The entire program is capped at $25 million in the first year, but could eventually grow to $100 million a year.

Nebraskans want a vote

Opponents to LB 753 called it a tax scheme that will suck away funds from state priorities, including education, social services and roads. Advocates, meanwhile, maintain that the law will give low-income families an alternative for children who may be struggling in a public school.

Nebraska was one of only two states in the nation that didn’t provide some kind of “school choice” option.

A Support Our Schools leader said Tuesday the “overwhelming success” of the signature drive is a clear sign that Nebraskans want a vote on the issue.

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

“This was a decisive victory and the first step to ensure public funds are used to support public schools, not private schools,” said Jenni Benson, who is also president of the Nebraska State Education Association.

“Nebraskans cannot afford to pay for two school systems,” Benson said in a press release.

“Now we redouble our efforts to inform Nebraskans of the harm LB 753 will cause if it is not repealed,” she said.

A spokeswoman with Keep Kids First said the organization remains committed to “help students struggling in a traditional education setting.” 

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen speaks at a “school choice” rally in the Rotunda at the Nebraska Capitol in January. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“Our focus has always been on giving Nebraska families the opportunity to choose the right education for their children to grow and reach their potential,” said spokeswoman Lauren Garcia Gage.

The signature gathering campaign by Support Our Schools sparked a bitter, give-and-take between it and Keep Kids First.

Charges of improper behavior by petition circulators and “blockers” have been traded, as has criticism of where each side is getting its funding.

Support Our Schools has been primarily funded by the state and national teachers unions, while Keep Kids First has the backing of Gov. Jim Pillen and Betsy DeVos, a former U.S. Education secretary in the Trump administration and a millionaire businesswoman.

DeVos spent heavily to help elect Nebraska state legislators in 2022 who support school choice. That helped pass the Opportunity Scholarships Act after years of failure of school choice bills. Conversely, the state teachers’ union has been among the top contributors to candidates who support public education.

A month ago, Support Our Schools turned in petitions containing an estimated 117,000 signatures, nearly double the 61,308 valid signatures required to place the referendum on the ballot.

By law, the Secretary of State’s Office is allowed to quit counting when it reaches 110% of that requirement.

A press release stated that county election officials verified 91,861 valid signatures and that signatures of more than 5% of registered voters were collected in 64 of the state’s 93 counties. The petition drive was required to meet that requirement in 38 counties.


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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.