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Support, don't scapegoat, public schools

As published in the Lincoln Journal Star.

In a recent Local View ("K-12 spending outpaces nearby states," July 5), State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn took aim at public education in Nebraska, rehashing the false claim that school spending is the reason for high property taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nebraska’s property taxes are high because the state ranks 48th in the nation for state investment in education, forcing local property taxes to make up the difference to provide quality teaching and learning for students.

A common claim is that local school board members and school administrators are extravagant and wasteful. They are not. They, too, pay property taxes. They understand property taxpayers’ concerns. They also see the need to provide first-rate, quality educational opportunities for our children and grandchildren.

Over the past five years, the average annual budget increase was only 2.7 percent for our public schools, less than for state government. Linehan's comparison of per-pupil spending in Nebraska to surrounding states omits key facts.

In Nebraska, per-pupil spending is highest in rural districts, in some cases on the order of $18,000 per student per year. This is largely because of transportation costs to bring students long distances to school. Is Linehan suggesting those rural districts, led by fiscally conservative school boards, are out of line by delivering kids to the classroom?

Despite these challenges and contrary to Linehan’s suggestion, Nebraska performs well academically compared to surrounding states. Among states where all high school juniors now take the ACT, Nebraska ranks No. 2 nationally. Comparing Nebraska’s scores to states where only primarily college-bound students take the exam is comparing apples to oranges.

Linehan also touted her work on improving access to interventions for struggling readers. Nebraska’s new statewide test, which assesses higher standards, found 50 percent of third graders were reading at grade level. Linehan fails to note that those third-graders had less than a year of instruction under the new standards. We cannot possibly expect children to test well on what they have not yet been taught. Over time, those scores will improve as children receive additional instruction on the new standards.

The facts are that Nebraska’s 2017 fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher than their peers across the country in math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only six states outscored Nebraska in fourth-grade reading, and only two scored better than Nebraska in math.

Nebraskans can be proud of their public schools – and of a recent report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education that ranks Nebraska No. 1 in the nation for policies supportive of public education. Unfortunately, information about our public schools is distorted in an attempt to promote a school-privatization agenda that includes charter schools, vouchers and tax credits.

Instead, focusing on two critical actions toward property tax relief would help Nebraskans and our public schools:

  • The Legislature needs to fully fund state aid to education as called for in the original 1990 formula, something it has only done three times in the last 16 years.

  • Follow the original intent of the formula and allocate 20 percent of income tax to school districts, instead of the current 2.23 percent. OpenSky Policy Institute estimates this would reduce property taxes statewide by $79.6 million (3.9 percent).

Linehan overlooks a problem the body in which she serves has helped perpetuate: the Legislature’s consistent failure to fund public education at the levels promised under its own law.

If public education funding is further threatened in the next legislative session, expect a fight. It will be led by public school parents, community supporters, teachers and others who overwhelmingly support Nebraska’s public schools on a bipartisan basis and understand that quality public education fuels individual student success, our state’s economy and our collective future.


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