State teachers union files petitions to repeal new ‘school choice’ law

May 31, 2023, 4 p.m. ·

Senator Lou Ann Linehan, chief sponsor, watches as Gov. Jim Pillen speaks about signing a tax-credit-funded scholarship law (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Lou Ann Linehan, chief sponsor, watches as Gov. Jim Pillen speaks about signing a tax-credit-funded scholarship law (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

LINCOLN — The ink was barely dry on a new law allowing generous tax breaks for donations for private schooling before the state’s powerful teachers union launched an effort to repeal it.

On Wednesday, language for a ballot referendum repealing Legislative Bill 754 was filed with the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office.

The effort, by a group called “Support Our Schools” and backed by the Nebraska State Educational Association, seeks to place the issue before voters on the ballot in 2024.

‘Harmful bill’

“Our goal is to give Nebraskans the opportunity to vote to repeal this harmful bill,” said Jenni Benson, the president of the NSEA and a Support Our Schools Nebraska petition sponsor.

Public schools, Benson said, educate nine out of 10 kids in Nebraska, and that “strong public schools support a strong Nebraska and a strong economy.”

“Diverting millions of tax dollars to private schools will hurt our public schools as well as other essential public services and infrastructure,” she said.

LB 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, provides a tax credit of up to $100,000 for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to private and parochial K-12 schools. The priority for the scholarships would be low-income children.

Gives low-income families a choice

The chief sponsor of the bill, Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, has argued that public schools don’t work for every student and that while middle- and high-income families can afford to send their child to a religious or private school, low-income families don’t have that option.

The law is expected to increase private school students by about 5,000.

Nebraska was one of only two states that didn’t offer some sort of “school choice” until Gov. Jim Pillen signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The bill initially would set aside $25 million a year in tax credits for those who donate to a “scholarship granting organization.” That allocation could eventually rise to $100 million a year, depending on the demand for tax credits.

About 61,000 signatures needed

NSEA, in a press release Wednesday, said that the loss in revenue could be up to $600 million by 2034. That would negatively affect funding for public schools as well as other state services, the organization said.

Backers of LB 753 have said that the amount of funding is small compared to other tax incentive programs and that it is ludicrous to say it will impact funding for public schools.

To qualify the referendum for the ballot, about 61,000 valid signatures of registered voters would have to be collected. To suspend the law from going into effect until a vote can be held would require about 122,000 signatures, or about 10% of the total registered voters in the state.