Debate begins on tax-credit scholarships for private or religious schools

March 6, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Lou Ann Linehan in debate Monday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)
Sen. Lou Ann Linehan in debate. (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

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The Nebraska Legislature opened debate Monday on a proposal for tax-credit funded scholarships to help children attend private or religious schools.

Monday’s debate centered on Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s latest attempt to authorize what her legislation calls “Opportunity Scholarships.” Linehan said public schools do a good job for many students, but some need a different approach. And she said giving more students the chance to attend private or religious schools would improve public schools, through competition.

“Think if you get up in the morning and you only had one grocery store to go (to). How good do you think that grocery store would be? You only had one gas station to go to. We all know the competition is what makes us the beacon to the world of how people can improve their lives. Because you get up every morning and you have to compete. That’s all we're doing here, is we're bringing some competition to a system that needs some competition,” Linehan said.

The bill would give taxpayers who donate to a qualified organization a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to $100,000 or half of their income tax liability, whichever is less.

Priority for scholarships would go to students in poverty, those denied transfers under the public school choice program, and students in special education. There would also be priorities for students who are being bullied, those in foster care, and children with parents in the armed services or with a parent who has been killed in the line of duty.

Leading off for opponents of the bill, Sen. John Cavanaugh, who sends his children to Catholic schools, objected to tax dollars being spent for religious education:

“Religious education is a required curriculum at Catholic schools. And that is why I'm fundamentally opposed to using state funds or giving preferred tax treatment to private religious education. The people of Nebraska in our state constitution agree. Article seven, section 11 of Nebraska Constitution prohibits sectarian instruction in public schools and the use of public funds for sectarian education,” Cavanaugh said.

Linehan countered that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of scholarships like those she’s proposing. And she said the prohibition in the Nebraska Constitution was rooted in anti-Catholic bias of the so-called Blaine amendments.

“The Blaine amendments were pushed by a U.S. Senator early in the 20th century, because the Catholics were coming, the Irish, the Italians. And at that timeframe (history in our country, almost all public schools were basically Protestant school,” Linehan said.

James G. Blaine was a U.S. Congressman, Senator, and presidential candidate in the late 19th Century who promoted amendments against sectarian education.

In addition to his constitutional objection, Cavanaugh also complained that Catholic schools in the Omaha archdiocese had proposed discriminatory policies last August.

Cavanaugh said they have since been revised, but not enough:

In: The revised policy still made it explicitly clear that gay and transgender students would not be welcomed at Catholic schools. as a family we decided that we could not send our children to school with this policy we made the decision to enroll in our neighborhood public school beginning next year, instead,” he said

The archdiocese’s policy says, in part, “One’s gender is determined by one’s biological sex; there can be no separation between the two.”

Linehan pushed back against the idea that private schools discriminate, but public schools do not, during an exchange with Sen. Justin Wayne.

“Do you think there's any discriminatory practices happening now, today, in our public schools?” she asked.

“Yes. You can look at the suspension rates, you can look at the achievement gap, you can look at every data point in which black and brown children are finishing last,” Wayne replied.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh suggested private school scholarships are not the right solution to that problem.

“Instead of saying ‘Public schools discriminate against black kids, so we should give money to private schools,’ how about we address the fact that public schools discriminate against black kids?” she asked.

The bill’s opponents also argued that Nebraska already has school choice because students can transfer between public school districts under the so-called option enrollment program. Sen. Dave Murman, chair of the Education Committee, who supported Linehan’s bill, discounted that line of thinking.

“To me, this is akin to telling the child on their birthday that they can go out to eat anywhere in town, but it has to be in a McDonald's. Sometimes McDonald's might work just fine, but it may not be the healthiest option. It does not work for everyone,” Murman said.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer objected to the tax credit mechanism. She said that amounts to letting people choose which particular programs their tax dollars support, at the expense of general budgetary needs.

“If we all brought tax credits at 100% to those things that we care about most, what would be left?” DeBoer asked.

Sen. Tom Briese, who supported the bill, downplayed opponents’ arguments that it would take away funding from public schools. Briese said that between direct aid and property tax credits, the state will spend more than $2.5 billion a year on public schools. The scholarships would be capped, at least initially, at $25 million a year.

“What Senator Linehan is proposing here, is putting into the Opportunity Scholarship program an amount of state dollars that represents less than 1% of the state dollars that we're going to be putting into public education. But yet, public education squawks about this,” Briese said.

With opponents lined up to filibuster against the bill, debate is likely to continue for two more days. After a cumulative eight hours, supporters can file a cloture motion to cease debate and take a first-round vote on the bill, which is likely to happen Wednesday.