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NE lawmakers work to circumvent private-school referendum vote

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Friday, March 15, 2024   

Nebraskans this November will be able to vote on whether to keep the Opportunity Scholarships Act, which gives a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to people who contribute to private-school scholarship-granting organizations. However, pending legislation could render this vote meaningless when it comes to state-funded support of private schools.

LB 1402 would give private-school scholarship money directly to the SGOs, starting from $25 million and up to as much as $100 million annually over time.

Supporters of the referendum have said voters should have their say. This includes Dunixi Guereca, executive director of the group Stand for Schools, who said state support of private-school scholarships would especially harm rural communities.

"They love their schools, especially in greater Nebraska," he said. "And what these large-scale privatization measures will do is siphon money away from that. Because it's not profitable to open up a for-profit school in greater Nebraska; it's going to siphon money to Lincoln, to Omaha, to the detriment of our communities outstate."

He noted that 117,000 Nebraskans signed the referendum petition -- over 50,000 more than needed -- from all areas of the state and all political persuasions. Supporters of the Opportunity Scholarships Act have said it equalizes educational opportunities by allowing more families to pick the school they feel is best for their child.

Guereca said plenty can be learned from other states' experiences with state-funded private-school scholarship programs, including the growth of what he called "predatory schools."

"They're not going to prop up beautiful academies. They're going to go to a strip mall, they're going to put computers in, it's going to be Khan Academy with an administrator and teacher in the corner," he said. "Those schools aren't going to go up in Broken Bow, they're not going to go up in Chadron, they're not going to go up in Albion. It's going to be in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island. And who's going to get hurt the most? Our rural communities."

Carol Burris, executive director of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, which has tracked the impact of publicly funded private-school scholarship and voucher programs for years, said it's likely state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, R-Elkhorn, introduced LB 1402 because she knows the history of this type of referendum.

"When they've actually gone to the point where there has been a referendum, every single time, vouchers have gone down," she said. "Every time they've gone up to a ballot, they've been rejected."

Burris said her group gave Nebraska "a bit of a pass" this year - ranking it fifth-best in its latest "Public Schooling in America" report - because the scholarship program is new and is facing repeal.


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