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Opportunity Scholarship Bill Advances in Legislature

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Courtesy of Paul Hammel, Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — Nebraska would join 48 other states in providing some form of public funds to private schools under a bill given 31-12 first-round approval Wednesday.

The advancement of the Opportunity Scholarships Act marks the first time in several years that a “school choice” bill has moved forward in the Nebraska Legislature.

It also marks another preliminary win for conservatives in the 49-seat Unicameral, coming a week after first-round approval of a measure allowing carrying of a concealed weapon without state-approved training and a state permit.

The vote to end a filibuster against the scholarship bill squeaked by a 33-12 vote — 33 is the minimum required — which may portend some challenges ahead for Legislative Bill 753.

A political organizer for the powerful state teachers union pledged Wednesday that if the bill eventually passes, he will recommend that public school proponents mount a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot.

Not popular with voters

“The perception that this is popular (with voters) is a complete misnomer,” said Brian Mikkelsen, the political action director for NSEA. He added that Nebraska voters have rejected providing public funds for private schools three previous times.

LB 753 provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for money donated to an organization that provides scholarships for students attending private and parochial schools.

The bill, which is part of Gov. Jim Pillen’s ambitious package of education proposals, would provide $25 million a year in tax credits, which could increase to up to $100 million a year in the event the yearly credit amount is used.

Currently, only Nebraska and North Dakota do not offer some kind of state funding of private schools, via vouchers, charter schools or similar scholarship-donation programs.

Thrilled by advancement

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who has introduced unsuccessful private school scholarship bills in the past, said she was thrilled the bill has advanced but disappointed that she couldn’t “convince everybody” that the bill was a good idea.

Linehan
 Sen. Lou Ann Linehan talks to Sens. Myron Dorn, left, and John Arch during debate Wednesday. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner) 

She credited Wednesday’s advancement to the election of new, more conservative senators to the Legislature, as well as the shift of North Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney from “no” to “yes” on the bill.

Two senators who voted to end the filibuster did not vote to advance the bill — Sens. Myron Dorn of Adams and Jana Hughes of Seward — but one supporter of the measure was absent, Grand Island Sen. Ray Aguilar. So that would leave support for the bill at 32 votes, one short of the 33 votes needed to end a filibuster during second-round debate.

A group of mostly rural senators are seeking amendments to the bill, including, reportedly, lowering the $100 million cap on the ultimate size of the tax credits.

Hughes said she likes “the concept” of LB 753. “I think we’ll find a workable solution,” she said.

Might be amendments

Linehan said she may seek an amendment to the bill to ensure that the scholarships aren’t just going to Omaha parochial and private schools, but she was unsure what other changes might be necessary.

“I think a lot of what I’m dealing with is misinformation,” she said.

Once the governor’s educational funding bill gets advanced to floor debate, the senator said “it will be more obvious that this is for everybody.”

school choice
 This sign popped up Monday on the lawn of the state teachers’ union as debate began on the bill granting tax credits for donations for private school scholarships. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner) 

Much of the three-day debate on LB 753 focused on whether it diverted money away from public education and whether the generous dollar-for-dollar tax credit was too generous.

Linehan and other advocates said that low-income families deserve the same option of private schools as families that can already afford the tuition. LB 753, which gives highest priority to kids in poverty, would do that, they said.

“The people who are against choice (already) have choice,” said Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, a former Omaha Public School Board member.

Support from North Omaha senators]

 

He and McKinney, who also represents North Omaha, said members of their community want an alternative to public schools but say that is unaffordable for many families. 

Dungan
 State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner) 

Opponents of LB 753 argued that there’s no proof that low-income children have higher achievement scores if they shift to a private school and that “opening the door” to public funds for such schools will eventually lead to charter schools, voucher programs and “voucher schools” that pop up in strip malls to take advantage of the government-inspired funds.

Lincoln Sen. George Dungan said he was concerned that “saavy” operators would set up scholarship granting organizations to collect funds for low-budget schools they set up to capitalize on the new funds.

Linehan, after Wednesday’s debate, said she doubted that would happen.

Some opponents of LB 753 said it was disingenuous for some supporters of the bill to speak about their support for low-income kids when they won’t support other measures to help poor families, such as extending enhanced food stamp benefits that are expiring in October.

“I have a bill that feeds families and puts food in the mouths of kids,” said Sen. Jen Day of Gretna of her LB 84.

She said she doubts she can even get the bill advanced out of a committee to be debated by the full Legislature.

“It’s a lie … to say you care about poor kids,” Day said.

 

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