Nebraska’s School Choice Law May Face Ballot Initiative, As Its Predecessor Did

NSEA, other public school advocates launch bid to let voters decide fate of LB 1402.

Members of the Nebraska State Education Association march from their annual downtown Lincoln meeting to the Nebraska State Capitol. April 20, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

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LINCOLN — The state teachers union and other advocates for keeping public funds for public schools say they won’t let supporters of Nebraska’s revamped school choice law sidestep the voters this fall.

They said so while launching a petition drive Tuesday to repeal Legislative Bill 1402, the latest version of a scholarship or voucher program for K-12 students attending private schools. That law turned a tax credit program into a direct state appropriation to nullify a previous ballot initiative.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. April 18, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The Nebraska State Education Association and Support Our Schools Nebraska have argued that those who want to spend public dollars on private education are afraid of facing the voters — and that polling shows they should be.

“LB1402 was passed to silence voters, and their voices need to be heard and respected,” said Jenni Benson, NSEA president and a Support Our Schools Nebraska sponsor. “We were successful last summer, and with everyone’s help we can again gather enough signatures to put this latest voucher scheme on the ballot so Nebraskans are not denied their right to vote.”

Money on both sides of fight

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the sponsor of both school choice efforts, has said it is difficult, even with help from school-choice advocates like U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, to outspend public school supporters like Susie Buffett and national teachers unions.

Linehan, reached Tuesday, said she was not surprised.

“The teachers union always puts the union first, not the kids,” she said. “The teachers union should be doing more to keep young teachers in the profession, fighting to make sure teachers get paid more. The Legislature, we’ve done several bills to address the teacher shortage, and we’ve passed bills to address funding for public schools. But their focus is on this. It’s alarming.”

Parents in North Omaha listen to the pitch from Keep Kids First, which advocates for protecting Nebraska’s new Opportunity Scholarships Act. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

She and other LB 1402 supporters have argued that advocates for public schools are ignoring low-income families who want more educational options.

“Are they against low-income kids, kids who are bullied, are they against them getting scholarships?” she has said.

Opponents of LB 1402 described the law as a “costly voucher scheme” that “denies Nebraskans their right to vote on the issue of diverting public funds to pay for private schools.”

‘Unprecedented step’

The next president of the NSEA, Tim Royers of Omaha, criticized state senators for taking “the unprecedented step” of passing another bill that denied voters the opportunity to have a say on an issue after advocacy groups organized and fulfilled all legal obligations to give voters that chance.

“We thought we had resolved this question last summer when we turned in 117,000 signatures, that Nebraska voters want to have their say on whether public dollars should go to private schools,” Royers said.

NSEA President-elect Tim Royers of Omaha speaks about a new second effort to gather signatures to stop a school choice measure that was changed enough this year by lawmakers to require a second push to stop it at the ballot box. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

He said the union was seeking a partial repeal of LB 1402, leaving intact the part that repeals the previous school choice program. It would also leave alone the separate appropriations bill. Without a program to fund, lawyers told the Examiner, that would send $10 million a year back to the general fund.

Royers disagreed with Linehan and others arguing that the choice to spend public dollars on private education leads to better educational outcomes. He said he has not seen evidence of that in the experiences of 48 other states with similar programs.

“We don’t want to find ourselves going down a road where there’s a false promise that’s also taking critical resources away from public schools, which makes it harder for us to deliver for the vast majority of Nebraska students that attend public schools.”

Opponents of LB 1402 might also pursue legal action against the law, he said.

Addressing critics’ concerns

Linehan has said the new measure addresses opponents’ concerns about the tax credit provided by last year’s legislation, LB 753.

Critics of the original school choice law said it raided the state treasury of potential revenue from wealthy donors, many of whom might already have given to existing scholarship programs run on behalf of private or religious schools.

Benson said diverting millions of tax dollars to fund vouchers for private schools “will hurt our public schools as well as other essential public services and infrastructure.”

Support Our Schools faces a tight timeline to get the initiative on the ballot. The group has 90 days after the end of the legislative session to collect about 61,000 valid signatures. That would give signature gatherers until about mid-July.

The group plans to turn in the petition language to start gathering signatures at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Lincoln. Organizers say they have started receiving commitments from many of the 1,800 people who helped them with the first petition.

Last fall, teachers and other backers of Support Our Schools wheel out boxes of voter-signed petitions seeking to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships Act on the 2024 ballot. The vote would be cancelled if a new Opportunity Scholarship Act is passed by the 2024 Legislature, a move some have called “underhanded.” (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

LB 1402 directs a $10 million-a-year appropriation to the State Treasurer’s Office for the scholarship program, down from the $25 million a year tax credit in the original law, an amount that would have increased gradually up to $100 million a year.

Supporters hope to increase the amount appropriated under LB 1402.

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said it was “shocking and saddening to see these groups attack even the humblest legislation aimed at giving low-income families a choice in their education.”

He, like Linehan, highlighted increased state investment over the past two years in K-12 education, including the seeds of a $1 billion fund to offset local costs of special education and new baseline state aid to K-12 education.

“With these recent investments in our public schools, it is surprising that the $10 million cost of LB 1402, which is about 0.2 percent of our total education funding, is such a concern to the teachers union.”

Students applying for help

More than 1,500 students have applied for scholarships under the existing program, one local school choice advocate said, and organizers expect another 1,000 to apply this spring.

One mother of a program participant, Latasha Collar of Omaha, said her family needed the help to be able to re-enroll her daughter in a private school of her choosing, according to Opportunity Scholarships of Nebraska, a scholarship granting organization.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to see your child excited to go to school again,” she said.

In other states that passed similar programs, state funding starts with help for needy students and expands to cover more students who want to attend private schools, with most of the benefits going to families already attending private schools.

Linehan’s end-of-session push to remake the scholarship program will render moot the first petition drive that Support Our Schools organized against the 2023 tax credit. LB 1402 repeals its predecessor once it becomes law in mid-July.

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, the state’s top elections official, who oversees ballot initiatives, has not yet issued a formal opinion booting that first initiative from the ballot. Political observers expect that to happen as soon as this week.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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