Tax Credits for Private/Religious School Scholarships Blocked in Legislature

April 28, 2021, 6:18 p.m. ·

Clouture vote Wednesday in the Legislature. Thirty-three votes were needed for cloture. (NET screenshot)

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Proposed tax credits for scholarships were blocked by a filibuster Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature, in a wide-ranging debate that touched on race, gender identity, and history.

Wednesday’s debate was the latest skirmish in a multi-year battle over so-called “opportunity scholarships.” Those are scholarships to private or religious schools given out by charitable organizations. Contributing to those organizations would entitle individuals or businesses to tax credits under the bill.

As proposed by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the scholarships would be limited to students from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Sen. Justin Wayne said he opposed similar proposals in the past, but now he supports it. Wayne, who’s biracial – black and white – quoted Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X

“‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.’ Well when you look at the achievement gap in the communities of east Omaha, we’re not doing a very good job of preparing black people for tomorrow’s world,” Wayne said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, who’s black, opposed the proposal. McKinney said he’s heard from constituents about discrimination in private and parochial schools.

“I think all kids should have the opportunity to go wherever they want. But I definitely don’t support sending them to institutions that’s gonna discriminate against them and are inherently racist and haven’t necessarily stood for my community ever,” McKinney said.

Sen. Ray Augilar, who’s Hispanic, supported the bill. He talked about students in Grand Island who had benefitted by transferring to a Catholic school where he worked.

“One year we had two students -- One black, one latino. They had been kicked out of the public school. So they come to Central Catholic. And guess what? They both excelled there. They both graduated there. They excelled academically as well as on the sports field. They were a fantastic contribution to our programs,” Aguilar said.

Sen. Megan Hunt said the proposal should be amended to guarantee nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. Hunt, who’s bisexual, said she’d been disturbed by a recent conversation with a Catholic school administrator.

“This person talked to me about how he had seen several children who are confused about their gender identity, who have gender dysphoria, who are confused about their sexual orientation, and how by the grace of God and the good works of these teachers they have corrected these students and gotten them back on the godly path. To me, that was a pretty horrifying comment. It was a pretty stressful experience. And I took issue with him right then and there,” Hunt said.

Sen. Tom Brewer said health education standards, including teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity proposed by the Department of Education, were reducing support for publication in his Sandhills district.

“What happened this year that changed things in my district was when the parents started calling up and were angry over the Nebraska Department of Education’s recently proposed new health education standards. For the first time I saw the eroding of support for public schools. It shouldn’t be a secret that these parents thought they had been sold out, that they (Department of Education officials) had dabbled in an area that was none of their business,” Brewer said.

Sen. Mike Groene, supporting the bill, faulted the “education establishment” for opposing it.

“Who is behind all the opposition? The establishment. The administrators, the school union. Those who profit – profit, and that is the right word – from more tax dollars going to public education. It’s got nothing to do with children,” Groene said.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, opposing the bill, said public schools should not be blamed for failing to fix what she called the “opportunity gap.”

“The opportunity gap isn’t where you show up to school. It’s all the things that happen in your life before you even enter the school. It’s did you get to eat? Did you get breakfast? Did you get to brush your teeth? Did you get to go see your doctor, your pediatrician? Did you get your vaccinations? …It’s raining out - do your shoes have holes in them? Is your parents’ car working? Is the bus on time? Do you have heat? Do you have a home?” Cavanaugh asked.

Sen. Adam Morfeld said the focus should be on improving public education, not funding a separate system.

“I think that public education is the great equalizer in our society. And we need to work on improving it where we identify problems and issues, rather than dedicating resources to private institutions,” Morfeld said.

Sen. Linehan said she thought public education had been a great equalizer in the past. But she said that had changed. She mentioned the history of attempts at racial desegregation in schools, which Linehan, who’s white, said had resulted in ”white flight” to suburban districts.

“We wanted to desegregate our schools. That was the goal. But the exact opposite happened. They’re more segregated now than they have ever been. And therefore, your great equalizer is not working,” Linehan said.

After eight hours of debate, supporters of the proposal moved to cut off debate and vote on the bill. The move required support from 33 of 49 senators, but only 29 voted for it, with 18 opposed, dooming the proposal for this year.