Nebraska’s School Choice Law Could Face Ballot Initiative Following Similar Predecessor

The teachers union and other advocates for preserving public education funding are determined to prevent proponents of Nebraska’s revised school choice law from bypassing the voters this autumn. They made this clear as they initiated a petition campaign on Tuesday to revoke Legislative Bill 1402, the updated version of a scholarship or voucher initiative for K-12 students attending private schools. This law transformed a tax credit scheme into a direct state allocation to override a previous ballot measure.

The Nebraska State Education Association and Support Our Schools Nebraska have contended that supporters of funneling public funds into private education are reluctant to face the electorate, citing polling data that suggests they should be concerned.

“LB1402 was enacted to silence voters, and their opinions must be acknowledged and respected,” stated Jenni Benson, NSEA president and a sponsor of Support Our Schools Nebraska. “We were successful last summer, and with everyone’s support, we can once again gather sufficient signatures to place this recent voucher proposal on the ballot so that Nebraskans are not deprived of their voting rights.”

On the financing front, State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the proponent of both school choice initiatives, has acknowledged the challenge of outspending public school advocates despite assistance from school choice proponents like U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“The teachers union prioritizes the union’s interests over the well-being of children,” Linehan criticized. She added, “The teachers union should focus on retaining young educators in the profession and advocating for higher teacher salaries.”

Linehan defended advocates of LB 1402 by emphasizing that they are addressing the needs of low-income families seeking enhanced educational choices. She posed the question, “Are they opposed to scholarships for marginalized or bullied students?”

Opponents of LB 1402 condemned the law as an expensive voucher program that negates Nebraskans’ right to vote on the diversion of public funds to private educational institutions.

The incoming president of NSEA, Tim Royers of Omaha, rebuked state lawmakers for passing another bill that obstructed voters’ ability to voice their opinions on an issue that advocacy groups had diligently pursued.

“We believed that we had resolved this issue last summer when we submitted 117,000 signatures, indicating that Nebraskans want to decide whether public funds should support private schools,” Royers remarked.

Royers revealed that the union is seeking a partial repeal of LB 1402, maintaining the clause that eliminates the previous school choice program intact. This action would also leave the separate appropriations bill unaffected, potentially reverting $10 million annually back to the general fund.

Contrary to assertions that diverting public funds to private education leads to improved academic outcomes, Royers cited the lack of supporting evidence from 48 other states with comparable schemes.

“We must avoid falling into a trap of false promises that siphon vital resources from public schools, hindering our ability to cater to the majority of Nebraska students attending public schools,” Royers cautioned.

Possible legal challenges against LB 1402 were hinted at by opponents, raising concerns about the impact of reallocating millions in tax dollars to finance vouchers for private schools on public education and essential services.

Support Our Schools faces a tight timeframe to place the initiative on the ballot, with approximately 90 days post-legislative session closure to amass around 61,000 valid signatures, setting a deadline around mid-July for signature collection.

The organization intends to kickstart the signature-gathering process by submitting the petition language at 4 p.m. on Tuesday in Lincoln, rallying the 1,800 individuals who supported the initial petition.

LB 1402 designates a $10 million annual appropriation to the State Treasurer’s Office for the scholarship program, a reduction from the $25 million per year tax credit in the original legislation. Nevertheless, supporters aim to boost the allocated sum under LB 1402.

State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil lamented the attacks on legislation aimed at providing educational choices to low-income families, emphasizing recent state investments in K-12 education.

Moreover, more than 1,500 students have applied for scholarships under the current program, with an additional 1,000 expected to apply during the spring. One participant’s mother, Latasha Collar, highlighted the importance of the program in aiding her daughter’s enrollment in a favored private school.

Furthermore, Linehan’s initiative to revamp the scholarship program toward the session end will annul the previous petition by Support Our Schools targeting the 2023 tax credit, as LB 1402 voids its forerunner upon enactment in mid-July.

Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, overseeing ballot initiatives, has yet to issue a formal ruling to remove the initial initiative from the ballot. Observers anticipate this decision imminently.

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