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School solutions, not schemes

As published in the Lincoln Journal Star.

For the fifth year in a row, the Nebraska Legislature has rightly rejected private school tax credit scholarships by not advancing LB364 last month. We are deeply grateful to the bipartisan group of senators who opposed LB364, and hope that next session there will be an opportunity to focus on real solutions to inequity in schools and to get policies passed to help Nebraska schools better serve all children.

But there are powerful interests working to do just the opposite.

In a recent Local View, “School choice about children,” (May 6) Sens. Lou Ann Linehan and Justin Wayne claimed that school privatization is all about kids; it has nothing to do with politics.

Unfortunately, there is a mountain of evidence to the contrary. As Sen. Carol Blood asked during floor debate on LB364, if this issue isn’t about politics, why did out-of-state school privatization groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in Nebraska legislative elections in 2020? If LB364 were all about kids, why was Donald Trump’s former education secretary, Betsy DeVos, calling Nebraska state senators in the days before the LB364 vote to lobby them to vote yes?

And if LB364 were really all about kids, why did it create a new class of dollar-for-dollar tax credits, the most generous in the country, that would have allowed wealthy donors to give money to private school scholarship funds instead of paying up to half their income taxes?

Parents are not wrong to want the right educational environment for their child. And private educational scholarships are an excellent role for private philanthropy, as they have always been in Nebraska. Stand For Schools’ concerns arise when public tax dollars are placed in private hands with little to no oversight -- which has been a recipe for disaster in numerous other states.

Just as there is an abundance of evidence showing scholarship tax credits and other school privatization schemes do not improve student academic outcomes, there is ample research about policies that do work. If our objective is to eliminate inequities in schools, why would we spend another minute considering legislation that’s been proven time and again to exacerbate those very inequities?

Policymakers must understand that by definition, public schools’ challenges are society’s challenges; they do not begin or end at the schoolhouse door. On its own, no school -- public, private or parochial -- can end generational poverty, dismantle systemic racism or overcome decades of disinvestment.

Education is a rung, or several, on the ladder of opportunity. But it is not the entire ladder. Economic inequality, residential segregation, lack of access to healthcare and other social challenges impact children’s ability to learn -- and are beyond the ability of any one district, any one school or any one teacher, to fix.

Legislators do have the power to fix those problems. Whether they have the political will is another question. Because they already know poverty impacts learning. And they know, too, that poverty is growing across Nebraska, as it is nationally -- in both our urban centers and our rural communities.

Increasingly over the past several decades, public schools have become more than just schools; they are also food pantries, providers of mental and physical health services and places of safety.

Despite everything, Nebraska’s public schools remain some of the very best in the nation. But with student needs continuing to grow, Nebraska’s lawmakers will need to do better than Nebraska’s consistent rank of 49th in the nation for state support of K-12 education.

Our leaders must invest in education like the priority it is and fund public schools equitably, adequately and sustainably. No more talk of defunding schools through vouchers and scholarship tax credits. Every child in the state should have all of their basic needs met. And teachers are professionals; they deserve to be paid accordingly.

Instead, we need to seriously consider the strategies that are working well elsewhere -- like community school models that place community services such as health clinics and parent education centers inside public schools -- which have been proven to improve academic outcomes, improve family stability and expand vocational opportunities.

We’ll keep fighting against school privatization schemes so long as Betsy DeVos and other out-of-state megadonors have their sights set on Nebraska public schools. But we’ll also continue advocating for evidence-based policies that would actually help schools serve all kids better.

We would love to partner with Senators Wayne and Linehan on those efforts. Because Nebraskans deserve real solutions -- not more schemes.


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