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Public schools need protection

As published in the Lincoln Journal Star.

Last week, the Journal Star published “School Choice helps kids, state” (Jan. 29) by Mark L’Heureux, advocating for private education. That piece left out some crucial facts. The 2020 legislative session began in early January, and there are several proposals for public school supporters to be concerned about.

Among them, LB1202, alongside last year’s LB670, would establish scholarship tax credit programs that would cost the state a minimum of $10 million per year.

These proposals would give donors to private school scholarship programs a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on the value of their donations, up to 50% of their income tax liability. The main beneficiaries of these programs in other states are the wealthy donors who contribute to them, as opposed to the children who use them to attend private schools.

Ten million dollars a year (or much more over time, in the case of LB670) will come out of the state’s general fund, which funds public school budgets. Proponents of LB1202 claim it will save the state money by shifting students from public to private schools.

In reality, those savings have not materialized in any of the 18 states with a scholarship tax credit program. Instead, public schools’ fixed costs (building maintenance, number of staff, health insurance premiums) stay fairly consistent, and then the state must also pay for the cost of the scholarship tax credit.

Any Nebraskan who is concerned about their property tax bill should reject scholarship tax credits, and the march toward school privatization they represent, for that reason alone.

Nebraska ranks 49th in the nation for state-level funding to K-12 education, which is to say we rely heavily on local property taxes to fund public schools.

And our state has only fully funded its public schools, according to the state’s own funding formula, in three out of the last 16 years. Creating new funding streams for private education, like scholarship tax credits, when we are already underfunding our existing public schools, will not only hurt public schools but will raise property taxes, not lower them.

The good news is that Nebraska has some of the best public schools in the nation. But we need to think beyond the present to make sure our public schools stay great long into the future. Not enough leaders are thinking about what will make our schools, and our state, great places to be in 50 or 100 years.

Today, children’s needs are growing in our schools. Poverty is increasing in Nebraska, as it is nationally. The percentage of students in Lincoln Public Schools who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch has doubled from 24% in 2000 to 48% today. That trend is unfortunately mirrored across the state and the nation in both urban and rural school districts. And it means kids are coming to school facing new challenges. While our schools are doing their best to meet them, they need additional support.

Surveys of teachers and administrators indicate that student mental health issues are the No. 1 unmet need in Nebraska schools. More poverty also means more food insecurity, so school nutrition programs are more vital than ever. All Nebraskans need access to quality, affordable early childhood education. And we need to do more to recruit and retain quality, diverse teachers. Our state’s great public schools don’t exist by chance. Generations of local and state leaders have recognized the importance of public education and have invested in our children’s future.

In recent years, Nebraska has used its trademark cautious, conservative approach to reject many of the worst ideas in education reform. Our state didn’t adopt high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind in the early 2000s. We didn’t participate in Race to the Top in 2009. And we haven’t given in to privatization through scholarship tax credits, vouchers or charter schools.

Avoiding the bad choices many other states have made has helped preserve our strong public schools. And with some Nebraska policymakers and several new national organizations moving into our state pushing school privatization, avoiding bad ideas will continue to be its own challenge.

Yet our schools’ continued quality is not guaranteed without hard work and continued investment. The time for bold thinking is now. We can decide today the quality of schools we want in 50 years and make the investments that will put us on the right path for the future. But that starts with not moving backward, and rejecting school privatization, beginning with LB1202.


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