‘Opportunity scholarship’ bill heads to filibuster vote Wednesday

By: - March 7, 2023 6:59 pm

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha spoke to a group of students from area private schools earlier this year about her “opportunity scholarship” bill. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The contentious battle over public funds for private schools will come to a head Wednesday morning when state lawmakers vote on whether to halt a filibuster and advance Legislative Bill 753.

The “opportunity scholarships” bill needs 33 votes to end the filibuster and advance the measure from first-round debate.

By all accounts, it’s going to be close.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn promoted her bill Monday to provide tax credits for donations to “opportunity scholarships” for private schools. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the chief sponsor of LB 753, said the vote will be a key indicator of whether Gov. Jim Pillen’s entire package of education bills advances this year.

“People are missing that these things are connected,” Linehan said.

Pillen has proposed an ambitious, $2.5 billion investment in public education funding, including a big boost in funding for special education, a $1 billion “Education Future Fund” and a $1,500-per-student stipend for school districts not currently getting state aid.

Failure will ‘jeopardize’ governor’s package

The newly elected governor has also lent his support of LB 753, warning in a press release on Monday that failure to pass it will “jeopardize funding for all Nebraska students.”

But during floor debate Tuesday, lawmakers continued to differ on whether directing $25 million in state tax credits for scholarships to private and parochial schools would improve educational outcomes.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, who grew up in North Omaha, said that public schools have “historically failed” the Black community and that his constituents are tired of waiting for “things to improve.”

“Let’s try something else,” McKinney said. “Why not?”

State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

Opponents of LB 753 argued that it was wrong to direct public funds to private and religious schools that can discriminate in who they allow to enroll.

Omaha Sen. John Fredrickson, the first openly gay man elected to the Nebraska Legislature, said he was not sure his child would be eligible to attend a Catholic school in Omaha or whether he would be allowed to attend an event there.

Fellow Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, meanwhile, said he has seen public schools discriminate in who they allow to use option enrollment from a neighboring school district.

Districts ‘pick and choose’

Students in Nebraska can apply to enroll in a school district other than the one in which they reside, but Linehan and others said Tuesday that districts often “pick and choose” who they allow to opt in.

“The joke in Omaha is if you can punt, pass or kick you can get into Westside,” Wayne said, referring to Westside Community Schools.

Supporters of LB 753 maintain that the bill is about giving low-income families the same option to send their kids to a private school as well-heeled families.

Opponents maintain it’s mostly about providing a generous tax credit for wealthy donors and starts a slippery slope to state funding of charter schools and vouchers to attend private schools.

Nebraska and North Dakota are the only two states in the nation that do not currently offer public funds for private schools.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.