Petition opposing ‘school choice’ law seeks to bring issue to the voters

June 6, 2023, 4:49 p.m. ·

Nebraska State Educators Association president Jenni Benson said that voters deserve to make the final decision on where public school funds fall. (Photo by Emma Krab/Nebraska Public Media)

A coalition backed by the Nebraska State Educators Association, or NSEA, has launched a petition initiative to repeal the new state ‘school choice’ law.

Dubbed Support Our Schools Nebraska, the group hopes to collect 90,000 signatures in the next 90 days. This is well above the 60,000 needed to secure a spot on the ballot. At a press conference Tuesday, NSEA president Jenni Benson said that Nebraska voters have struck down similar legislation three times before. She said she is hopeful that if the petition succeeds, they will do it again.

“We need to tell the governor and state lawmakers that no means no,” Benson said.

The legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Jim Pillen last month, permits tax credits for private school scholarships. Under the law, donors can earn tax credits up to $100,000 or half of their income taxes. All donors will draw from a statewide pool of $25 million annually, which Pillen called “a drop in the bucket” for the overall education budget.

In the officially nonpartisan legislature, the bill gained support from members of both major parties, including two legislators from North Omaha. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said his support of the legislation did not come easily, but he was ultimately persuaded by the impact he believes the law would have on his community.

“My community can't wait 50 years for a choice to happen within the public school setting,” Wayne said. “This is actually a way for us to empower parents to make sure they can control their educational outcomes within their community, regardless of their income level.”

However, members of Support Our Schools Nebraska argue that rich individuals and organizations will benefit most from the law, not low income or struggling families. Milford Public School Board member Dave Welsch said despite changing hands several times, the legislation puts public funds into private schools and reimburses the donors.

“Because it is a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit, it isn't even the individual or corporation making the donation to private and parochial schools,” Welsch said. “It is state tax dollars providing this funding.”

Millard Education Association president Tim Royers, another coalition member, argued that unlike private schools, students in public schools are legally protected against discrimination. Royers said school choice may pose hardships for disabled students. He said it may also open the door for discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or religion in parochial schools.

Support Our Schools Nebraska received enough signatures on their petition drive to allow voters to decide whether to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships Act in November 2024. (Photo by Emma Krab/Nebraska Public Media)

“We want it to go to schools that welcome all kids regardless of their identity, regardless of their educational needs, regardless of any other background of who that kid is,” Royers said. “They deserve to be educated in that environment, and that's where we want our tax dollars to go.”

Gov. Pillen, the Nebraska Catholic Conference, and the 33 senators who supported the law released statements today criticizing the petition.

Support Our Schools Nebraska will have until Aug 30 to reach their signature goal.