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Red State Voters Could Take Down a School Voucher Program
Nebraska passed a voucher scheme that could cost $100 million annually. Now voters have a chance to kill it.
In May, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen signed a school voucher law that could eventually divert up to $100 million annually in funding from public education and other services to unaccountable private schools that can pick and choose their students.
Echoing conservative talking points previously heard in state houses all over the country, Pillen claimed that the new law is pro-children rather than anti-public education. “Our kids are our future, and we all believe that every Nebraska kid should have the opportunity to have their educational needs met, whether they live in Omaha or Scottsbluff,” he said, referring to a small city in the far western Nebraskan Panhandle. “This law ensures that we are funding students, not systems."
The law capped off a years-long effort by conservatives including former Gov. (and current U.S. Sen.) Pete Ricketts and Betsy DeVos, the billionaire former Secretary of Education under Donald Trump, to bring so-called “opportunity scholarships” to Nebraska. On top of the ramifications for public education, the new law also provides a dollar-to-dollar tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to private school scholarship programs—pulling money away from other public services as well as public schools.
Despite the setback, public education advocates haven’t given up. After a mad-dash petition effort to gather at least 60,000 signatures statewide, the group Support Our Schools announced in August that it had gathered 117,000 signatures, including at least five percent of voters in two-thirds of the state’s 93 counties. Because of this, the new law will be taken to voters next November to either keep or repeal it—a rare opportunity to roll back the increasing privatization of schools.
Jenni Benson, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association union that represents more than 26,000 Nebraska educators, told More Perfect Union this week that the vote in Nebraska will garner “national” attention.
“People in other states who have done this are now watching things get gutted, and now they're like, 'Whoa,’” she said. “‘What did we do and how do we pull this back?’”
Vouchers without schools
Over the past decade, conservative legislatures around the country have increasingly dragged their taxpayers into funding private schools. Earlier this year, North Carolina passed an enormous school voucher expansion after a single Democrat—Rep. Tricia Cotham of Charlotte, a former charter school president—switched parties to give the GOP veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers.
The new law in North Carolina tripled funding for an existing program and ended income restrictions for obtaining vouchers, meaning that wealthy families will be able to fund their kids’ private educations using taxpayer funds. Iowa passed a similar program this year, as did Florida.
But the school voucher movement has stumbled elsewhere. An aggressive effort by Gov. Greg Abbott to pass a deeply unpopular school voucher plan opposed by both Democrats and rural Republicans has failed in the House of Representatives multiple times this year, but Abbott has pledged to keep calling special sessions of the Texas legislature until it’s passed—and to support primary challengers to Republicans who don’t get on board. (This week, the Texas House Education committee passed a plan, but it’ll likely have a tougher road to passage in the full House.)
In Arizona, the cost of a universal school voucher plan passed last year has already ballooned over budget, with a projected cost of $780 million by the end of the next fiscal year, $155 million more than was initially anticipated and allocated for in the 2024 state budget, according to the Arizona Mirror. “It is causing havoc in Arizona,” Benson told More Perfect Union. “We believe it’s a slippery slope.”
Nebraska's law, known as LB753, committed less funding to vouchers than some other states have—$25 million in tax credits for the first three years of the program. But opponents point out that similar programs have quickly spiraled out of control.
“Most other states that have had a voucher-type system, it’s always grown and exceeded the amount of dollars that it was estimated to be,” said Dave Welsch, a farmer and longtime school board member in the community of Milford, Nebraska, told More Perfect Union. “Once it's implemented, LB753 could draw $100 million from our state general fund. ... [T]hat would be money going to private schools instead of staying in the general fund, where it can help other parts of the budget, including public schools.
Currently, nearly 90 percent of Nebraska students are enrolled in public schools, which is roughly in line with national averages. Every county in Nebraska is served by at least one public school system; by contrast, an analysis of Private School Review, a national directory of private and parochial schools, shows that only 21 out of 93 counties have private school options at every grade level from kindergarten through 12th. Just over half of counties even have a single private school, and many are parochial or other religious schools.
For example: Scotts Bluff County, namedropped by Pillen in his statement praising the passage of LB753, is home to zero private schools that educate students beyond fifth grade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Bill sponsor Sen. Lou Ann Linehan and others have argued that the bill is designed to help low-income students. In March, Linehan, who represents a district in Omaha, accused colleagues who opposed the legislation of sending their kids to private schools while “fight[ing] hard to prevent poor families from having that same option.”
“For too long we have been complicit in extinguishing the potential of children already dealt an unfair hand,” Linehan wrote in an op-ed for the Omaha World-Herald. “It is past time to give opportunity to all.”
But Welsch said many private schools functionally lack the ability to offer that opportunity.
“Most of these schools don't have the capacity to accept very many students, whether they're paying tuition or not, and therefore, they won't be bringing in very many low-income students into the private/parochial schools,” he said. “So any of the money that's been donated to those newly created scholarship granting organizations will go to current students.”
The certification of signatures for the repeal effort kicked off what is sure to be an arduous and expensive electoral campaign. Even during the signature-gathering process, a group backed by DeVos spent more than half a million dollars opposing the repeal effort, the Nebraska Examiner reported in August.
But supporters of public education have several factors working in their favor. In July, a poll commissioned by the pro-repeal Open Sky Policy Institute found that more than half of likely voters—55 percent—opposed the passage of LB753. And Nebraska voters have tended to support repeal efforts that have gotten on the ballot; out of 10 laws brought before them since 1950, Nebraskans have voted to repeal nine. (The one they kept, ironically, was a 1990 law passed boosting state support for public schools.)
Welsch and Benson both said that one of their major arguments against LB753 is a constitutional one. Article VII, Section 11 of the Nebraska Constitution states: “Notwithstanding any other provision in this Constitution, appropriation of public funds shall not be made to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the state or a political subdivision thereof.”
“If people want to support poor students in attending private parochial schools, they already have the option of donating to those types of scholarship funds,” Welsch said. “It’s that dollar-for-dollar income tax credit that I believe is unconstitutional.”
Beyond the constitutional argument, both Besnon and Welsch said that supporters of the repeal effort will appeal to Nebraskans’ pride in public schools. “I think overall, all the way across Nebraska people are quite pleased with their public schools,” Welsch said. “Even in Lincoln, I think they're quite supportive of the public school system.” (Voters overwhelmingly approved school bonds for Lincoln Public Schools in 2020, 2014, and 2016.)
Benson said a key element is meeting people around the state on the needs of their own district.
"Nebraska is a very relational place...we got signatures from 93 counties in 90 days because we had those conversations,” Benson said. "When [Nebraskans] bring it down to their local level, they don't necessarily care about Lincoln and Omaha. They care about what this means for their families, for their communities, for their kids.”
“Those are the conversations we're going to have,” she added. “But we're up against a lot of big money.”