LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that will channel public money to scholarships for private school tuition, despite critics who say the measure hurts public schools, benefits wealthy taxpayers and helps mostly parochial schools that can discriminate against LGBTQ+ students.
Opponents of the measure also promised Wednesday to launch a petition initiative for repeal. If the Support Our Schools initiative gathers enough signatures, it will put the issue on the November 2024 ballot.
The bill, which has the governor’s support, was introduced by Omaha Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who has been fighting to pass a version of the bill for seven years. It does not appropriate taxpayer dollars directly toward private school vouchers. Instead, it would allow money owed for state income tax to be donated for scholarships covering private school tuition.
Businesses and individuals could donate up to $100,000 per year; estates and trusts could offer up to $1 million a year. The bill would allocate $25 million a year over the next two years and up to $100 million annually thereafter to cover such donations — money that otherwise would have gone into the state’s general revenue fund.
The money would be overseen and allocated by nonprofit groups, which are subject to a cap of 10% of what they can take from donations for administrative costs. The bill also requires the groups to track and report on scholarship allocations.
The bill includes a tier system for scholarships that prioritizes low-income students and those being bullied.
Public school advocates have blasted the measure as a “school voucher scheme” that will hurt the state’s K-12 public school system, arguing that diverting tax dollars to private schools from the state’s general fund is money that could go to struggling public schools.
Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln said public schools would lose out in other ways as students leave public schools for private ones. If 5,000 of the state’s nearly 330,000 public school students leave for private schools, “that would take $11.8 million out of public schools” through enrollment reductions, she said.
But supporters — including several Democrats in the officially nonpartisan, one-chamber Nebraska Legislature — pushed back against that argument, noting that lawmakers have also this year passed a bill that will pump more than $1 billion, mostly from federal pandemic recovery dollars, into public education.
Sen. Justin Wayne, a Democrat from Omaha, noted his support for the bill evolved over the last 10 years. In 2013, when he was president of the Omaha Public Schools Board, he was dead-set against any school choice bill, he said, fearing it would hurt public schools. Some years later, a community in north Omaha raised money for a student he coached to attend private school “and it changed his life,” he said.
“This is not an anti-public school bill,” he said. “This is a pro-parent bill.”
The Nebraska Catholic Conference, a lobbying group representing Roman Catholic-run schools in the state that would receive most of the scholarship funds, pushed hard for the measure’s passage. But it did not address opponents’ concerns that its schools might discriminate against students and families — particularly those within the LGBTQ+ community — on the basis of religion.
Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who opposed the bill, introduced an amendment earlier in the session that would have banned private schools benefiting from the vouchers from discriminating against families — including those within the LGBTQ+ community. It failed on a largely party-line vote.
Republican Gov. Jim Pillen has said he will sign the bill into law.
The state’s largest teachers union promised support for repeal.
“Nebraska public schools educate 90% of all the kids in Nebraska,” said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association. “We need to keep our public schools strong.”