Legislature advances scholarships for private, religious schools

March 8, 2023, midnight ·

The Nebraska Legislature meets Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
The Nebraska Legislature meets Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal to create taxpayer-funded scholarships to send students to private and religious schools won first-round approval Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature.

Wednesday’s vote marked a first-time victory for Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s proposal, which she’s introduced repeatedly in recent years.

In Wednesday’s debate, supporters of the bill like Sen. Kathleen Kauth argued the scholarship fund would give students from low-income families a choice between public and private schools. Kauth discounted criticism that not everyone would have the ability to choose, because religious schools could discriminate based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

“No kid is the same. They all need something different and if they feel that a school would fit them better, whether it's religious or not -- there are 222 private schools in Nebraska. 38 of them don't have religion and the rest are about half Catholic and half Lutheran. There's a place for everyone to fit. It should be available,” Kauth said.

Opposing the bill, Sen. George Dungan disagreed that there is a place for everyone. He said discrimination exists in several ways, but gender identity carries an obvious potential burden.

“I don't want this to be the oppression Olympics. We are intersectional in the way that we are oppressed as a society. We are oppressed on race. We are oppressed on class. We are oppressed on gender. But there are school handbooks that I'm able to pull up here in front of me that say specifically, you can get in trouble at private schools, a particular private school who I shall not name, that clothing should be in conformance to a student's biological sex,” Dungan said.

Sen. Jen Day, another opponent, took issue with how the scholarships would be financed. Under the proposal, donors would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their donations. Day said this is a perk for people who can afford to make donations. And she expressed frustration that her proposal to extend Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits, remains stuck in a legislative committee, while the scholarship bill, LB753, is moving ahead.

The bill “benefits wealthy donors, it puts more money back in the pockets of people who have enough money to donate in the first place. And maybe it'll help a handful of kids. SNAP does not put money in the pockets of wealthy donors. It puts food in the mouths of kids who live in poverty,” Day said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney said many people in his district, which is largely black, support the bill. He told his mostly white colleagues that his constituents aren’t satisfied with their schools and want to have a choice of where to send their kids.

“There was a bunch of people from our community down here yesterday, sitting in listening to this debate, and they all told me ‘Bro, keep fighting. They don't understand what we go through. They don't get it.’ And maybe you'll never get it, and maybe I can never explain it clear enough for you to ever get it, as to why we just want a option, an opportunity. It’s not to say it's for everybody, that it’s going to work for everybody,” McKinney said.

As the debate neared its end, Linehan predicted there would be changes as the bill moves through the next stages of consideration.

“We'll work on all the details, and we'll work with the lobby, public schools, private schools, everybody. And we'll find out some way in the end -- we will get to something that everybody can support,” she said.

Thirty three senators -- the minimum number needed – voted to end invoke cloture and end a filibuster against the bill. They then advanced LB753 on a vote of 31-12.

In other legislative action Wednesday, the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard arguments for and against making elections for state offices nonpartisan.

Elections for the Legislature are already nonpartisan, but the proposal by Sen. John Cavanaugh would extend that to the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Auditor, and Treasurer.

Cavanaugh advocated holding one primary open to candidates and voters from all political parties, followed later by a general election between the top two vote-getters.

“What this would do is open the election up to the many, many Nebraska voters who are not affiliated with a political party and very often do not get a choice on who the candidates are for a particular office,” Cavanaugh said.

But testifying against the proposal, Steve Davies said it could have the opposite effect, especially in lower-profile races.

“The success of our Republic depends in part on informed electorate. And party identification, although imperfect and limited, is a valuable part -- too important to dismiss. Without it, voters will be more confused and down-ballot elections will be decided with a smaller percentage of voters,” Davies said.

Cavanaugh’s proposal says a candidate’s party identification would not appear on the ballot. But he said he’s open to changing that. He said his primary interest is having open primaries and a general election between the top two vote-getters. The committee took no action on the proposal.