The Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) has launched a petition to end its state’s maiden voyage into school choice.
NSEA launched Support Our Schools Nebraska to run the petition, which began distributing signature sheets this week. NSEA must gather about 60,000 signatures by August 30 in order to qualify for the ballot next November.
Nebraska voters will be able to decide if they want the state to divert public tax dollars to pay for private schools under a petition filed today by a coalition of Nebraska public school advocates.#SOSNE • https://t.co/S880MaHneR pic.twitter.com/aW7FqC8O8j
— Support Our Schools Nebraska (@SOSNebraska) May 31, 2023
The petition launched a day after Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen signed the bill enacting school choice — LB753, or the Opportunity Scholarship Act — into law. The legislation marked the first type of school choice program in state history. NSEA alleged that the school choice program was a tax scheme to benefit private schools.
“Diverting millions of tax dollars to private schools will hurt our public schools as well as other essential public services and infrastructure,” said petition sponsor Jenni Benson in a press release.
LB753 is a historic step forward for the state of Nebraska. Our kids are our future, and we all believe that every Nebraska kid should have the opportunity to have their educational needs met. This law ensures that we fund students, not systems. pic.twitter.com/tsQHkXTWXd
— Governor Jim Pillen (@TeamPillen) May 30, 2023
In a statement that same day, Pillen characterized the NSEA’s petition as an attack on children seeking the best education for themselves.
“Every kid in Nebraska deserves a high-quality education and the opportunity to pursue their dreams,” said Pillen. “The NSEA’s attempt to overturn the Opportunity Scholarships Act is an attack on our kids and their educational opportunities. I am confident Nebraska voters will reject any attempt to limit school choice for our families.”
RELEASE: Governor Pillen Statement on NSEA Petition pic.twitter.com/6nU37G3SVL
— Governor Jim Pillen (@TeamPillen) May 31, 2023
Following NSEA’s distribution of signature sheets, Pillen wrote in a weekly column that the state should be funding students rather than systems.
“These scholarships will go to those students who need them most. They will provide students the ability to attend a school they otherwise could never afford,” stated Pillen.
Nebraska’s school choice program establishes $50 million in tax credits for scholarships to private schools. Maximum scholarship amounts will be limited to the school’s cost of tuition and fees, with the average of scholarship amounts awarded per student not exceeding 75% of the state’s per-student expenditure.
The bill requires schools to prioritize five classes of students:
First priority goes to students who received an education scholarship from a scholarship-granting organization during the previous school year, and any siblings of a student in the same household who receives an education scholarship.
Second priority goes to students whose household incomes are under 100% of the federal poverty level; whose application for the enrollment option program was denied; who have an individualized education plan; who are experiencing bullying, harassment, hazing, assault, battery, kidnapping, robbery, sexual offenses, threat or intimidation, or fighting at school; who are in the foster care system; and who are in a family with a parent or guardian serving active-duty military, or whose parent or guardian was killed in the line of duty.
Third priority goes to students whose household income levels exceed 100%, but not 185% of the federal poverty level. Fourth priority goes to students whose household income levels exceed 185%, but not 213% of the federal poverty level. Finally, fifth priority goes to students whose household income levels exceed 213%, but not 300% of the federal income eligibility standard for reduced school meals.
Nebraska’s school choice legislation received some bipartisan support: three Democrats joined 30 Republicans to approve the legislation. One of the Democrats, State Sen. Justin Wayne, announced his break from his party in January to side with school choice.
Nebraska’s legislature is technically nonpartisan. The legislators, all senators, are elected without an official party affiliation. State party endorsements indicate where these senators align, making the Republican Party the majority in the legislature.
Nebraska’s legislature is unique: it is the only unicameral legislature in the country, signifying a single legislative chamber rather than a separate house and senate. Additionally, there are no representatives — just 49 senators serving four-year terms, making Nebraska’s legislative body the smallest in the nation.
In addition to the three Democrats joining 30 Republican colleagues to pass school choice, five senators were present, but didn’t vote: Republican Sens. Tom Brandt and Myron Dorn, and Democratic Sens. Jen Day, Tony Vargas, and Lynne Walz.