Education News

School Choice Debate Heats Up in Nebraska as Voters Prepare to Decide

The issue of school choice has sparked a passionate debate in Nebraska, as lawmakers and voters clash over the use of public funds for private and parochial schools. A new bill proposed by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan would allocate $25 million a year directly from state coffers to organizations that hand out scholarships to private and parochial schools. The bill is seen as a replacement for the Opportunity Scholarship Act passed last year by state lawmakers, which allows taxpayers to divert up to half of their state income taxes to the same purpose. However, the Opportunity Scholarship Act is scheduled to appear on the November ballot for the public to decide whether to retain or repeal it, after 117,000 voters signed petitions to force the vote.

Supporters of School Choice Say It Benefits Students and Families

Linehan, the sponsor of both bills, said that school choice would benefit students and families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public education in Nebraska. She said that many low-income and minority students are trapped in failing schools and deserve a chance to attend better schools that meet their needs and preferences. She also said that school choice would create competition and innovation among schools, and improve the overall education system in the state.

Among those who testified in favor of Linehan’s bill at the State Capitol on Tuesday were Betzy Bravo, a junior at Omaha Gross Catholic High School, and her brother, Javier, a second grader at St. Thomas More Catholic School. They said that they were grateful for the scholarships they received from the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Omaha, which allowed them to attend private schools that offered them more opportunities and support than their public schools.

School Choice Debate Heats Up in Nebraska as Voters Prepare to Decide

“We are very happy at our schools. We have learned a lot and we have made many friends,” Betzy said. “We want other kids to have the same chance that we have.”

Opponents of School Choice Say It Violates the Constitution and Hurts Public Schools

Opponents of school choice, however, argued that using public funds for private and parochial schools violates the Nebraska Constitution, which prohibits the appropriation of public funds to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the state or a political subdivision thereof. They also said that school choice would divert money and resources away from public schools, which serve the majority of students in the state and face many challenges and needs.

Scott Norby, an attorney for the Nebraska State Education Association, said that Linehan’s bill was an “end run” around the “will of the people,” who have the right to vote on the issue in November. He said that passing the bill would “preempt” the referendum process and undermine the democratic system.

“The people have decided to decide that issue,” Norby said. “They deserve to have their voices heard.”

Rita Bennett, one of the petition circulators, said that she was appalled by Linehan’s attempt to bypass the ballot initiative, which she said was a grassroots effort that involved thousands of volunteers and voters. She said that she and many others were opposed to school choice because they believed in the value and importance of public education for all children.

“Public schools are the backbone of our democracy. They are the places where our children learn to be good citizens and to respect diversity and difference,” Bennett said. “We cannot afford to lose them.”

The Future of School Choice in Nebraska Remains Uncertain

The fate of school choice in Nebraska remains uncertain, as the bill faces opposition from the Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for the state budget, and the full Legislature, which is divided on the issue. Linehan said that if her bill was passed this year, she would ask that the Opportunity Scholarship Act be repealed by the Legislature, which would render the November vote moot. However, if her bill fails, she said that she would continue to fight for school choice and challenge the constitutionality of the ballot initiative.

Meanwhile, the supporters and opponents of school choice are gearing up for a heated campaign ahead of the November election, which could determine the future of education in Nebraska. Both sides claim to have the best interests of students and families at heart, and both sides are prepared to defend their positions with passion and conviction.


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