Historic moment in Legislature for school choice

Friday, 26 May 2017 - 

The Nebraska Legislature’s Revenue Committee voted May 18 to advance the Opportunity Scholarship Act (LB295) to General File on a 5-3 vote (see below for information to send a thank you to Senators who supported LB295). The bill is now eligible for debate by the entire Legislature for the 2018 legislative session. The advancement to General File marks a historic moment for school choice legislation in Nebraska.  

Introduced by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion (chairman of the Revenue Committee), the Opportunity Scholarships Act provides privately-funded scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend the private school of their choice. These scholarships are funded by private donations to qualified nonprofit scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). In return, those who provide private donations could receive a tax credit (as opposed to a tax deduction) on their state income tax bill. Similar scholarship tax credits programs exist in at least 18 other states, including Iowa, Kansas, and South Dakota. 

The Opportunity Scholarships Act is legislation that corresponds beautifully with the primary responsibility of parents to direct the education of their children and the state has a duty to recognize and assist in this responsibility. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental…. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise.”

By providing an avenue for increased scholarship opportunities for low- and middle-income students, Nebraska can empower parents and families who may otherwise lack the adequate financial resources to give their child the education that is best suited to their needs. 

Throughout Nebraska, faith-based and private schools and other scholarship organizations are nowhere near meeting the demand of students in need of financial assistance. For example, the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Omaha already funds private-school scholarships for more than 1,800 low-income students a year. But they also must turn away more than 600 students a year for lack of donations. The same is true with many Catholic, Lutheran, and other faith-based or private schools across Nebraska.

The Opportunity Scholarships Act—like other scholarship tax credit legislation across the country—would also help our state achieve significant costs savings, without taking away funds from public schools. 

The state saves money when scholarships are provided to students who transfer from public-to non-public schools or who would otherwise be in a public school but for the scholarship opportunity. When the student transfers, the cost of their education is assumed by the non-public school. This creates a direct savings to the state because such students will not receive state aid as a public-school student. Such savings are realized almost immediately after the passage of scholarship tax credit legislation. Notably, our faith-based and private schools alone already save the state around half a billion dollars per year.

Scholarship tax credits programs across the country have saved at least $1.7 billion to date. Our neighbors in Iowa have saved at least $280 million since the enactment of their scholarship tax credit program in 2006. 

With the advancement of the Opportunity Scholarships Act advanced from the Revenue Committee, the Nebraska Catholic Conference intends to provide extensive public education on the importance of school choice and turning LB295 into law. As we move forward, it will be critical for our elected representatives in the Nebraska Legislature to hear from their constituents about the importance of advancing the Opportunity Scholarships Act and giving our children greater access to schools that are best suited to their educational needs.

For now, we ask that you send a thank you e-mail or letter to those State Senators who voted to advance LB295 from the Revenue Committee to General File. Let them know that you appreciate their support of robust school choice and fiscally responsible legislation. 

The Senators who voted in support (with their e-mail address) are: Sen. Jim Smith (Papillion) ( jsmith@leg.ne.gov), Sen. Brett Lindstrom (Omaha) ( blindstrom@leg.ne.gov), Sen. Tyson Larson (O’Neill) ( tlarson@leg.ne.gov), Sen. Mike Groene (North Platte) ( mgroene@leg.ne.gov), and Sen. Lydia Brasch (Bancroft) ( lbrasch@leg.ne.gov).
Those Senators who opposed are: Sen. Burke Harr (Omaha), Sen. Paul Schumacher (Columbus), and Sen. Curt Friesen (Henderson)