Betsy DeVos at the Faith and Freedom “Road to Majority” conference at Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Convention Center on June 17, 2020. (John Partipilo/Tennessee Lookout)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — Much of the $710,000 that a national school choice group sent to Nebraska to spend on legislative races in 2022 came from the family of former President Donald Trump’s Education secretary and the owner of the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks as Mark Brown, chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid listens during a hearing before House Education and Labor Committee Dec. 12, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Secretary Betsy DeVos, together with her husband, Richard, and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam donated $3.25 million of the $3.3 million Nebraska campaign finance forms list as being raised by the American Federation for Children. Both families have served on the group’s board.

The American Federation for Children advocates for charter schools, vouchers and tax credit scholarships for private schools.

So why did the group send $710,000 to a Nebraska affiliate during the 2022 election cycle? It did so to help Nebraska pass something like Legislative Bill 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn sponsored the bill, which the Revenue Committee has advanced to the floor. Opportunity Scholarships would cut the amount of state income taxes paid by donors to private school scholarship programs aimed at needy students at private schools.

Linehan’s bill has 31 co-sponsors, including two Democrats who have received donations from the school choice group: State Sens. Justin Wayne and Mike McDonnell, both of Omaha. They and Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha have said they want students to have choices.

Lauren Garcia, who directs the Nebraska Federation of Children, said her group and its national organization are pushing for more options for students in Nebraska. She said the federation fights teachers unions that want “to protect their education monopoly.”

Dunixi Guereca
Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand for Schools of Nebraska. (Courtesy of Stand for Schools)

She said the groups are grateful for the support of donors such as DeVos and for her “advocacy for a quality education for every child, no matter their ZIP code or family’s income.” Linehan’s daughter, Katie, is a spokeswoman for the national organization.

Said Garcia: “While thousands of Nebraskans support school choice, the political muscle of the teachers union has stripped too many lawmakers of the courage to do what is best for kids.” 

The Nebraska State Education Association, the union that represents Nebraska’s public school teachers, had no immediate comment Friday. The union has testified that the bill risks sending money that would otherwise be in the public treasury to fund private schools.

Nationally, the American Federation for Children spent about $9 million in 2022 to help candidates who embrace its goals: charter schools, vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts, the last of which Iowa adopted this year.

Nebraska is one of two states that hasn’t approved one of those four policies. The other is North Dakota, which is mulling a bill this session, too.

Lou Ann Linehan
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

The Nebraska Federation for Children spent more than $800,000 on nine legislative races during the 2022 election cycle, including the $710,000 sent from the national group, according to Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission year-end reports. 

The Nebraska group’s top local donors included Ken Stinson, chairman emeritus of the Kiewit Corp.; U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb.; and James Timmerman of Springfield, Neb., part of a well-known cattle ranching and feeding family. 

Among the year’s highlights: The group spent $119,000 to help State Sen. Brad von Gillern of Omaha win his race against Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek. It spent $57,000 to help State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha win and $115,000 against Kauth’s opponent, Tim Royers.

The group also spent $124,000 against State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln and $64,000 to boost his opponent, Russ Barger. Dungan won anyway. And it spent $54,000 against legislative candidate Angie Lauritsen in Sarpy County, who lost to State Sen. Rick Holdcroft.

Lauritsen described the sinking feeling of seeing the outside money continue flowing into her race, including wave after wave of direct mail. She said she was targeted for wanting to protect the excellent public schools that power growth in Sarpy County.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen speaks at a “school choice” rally in the Rotunda at the Nebraska Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 24. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

“We’re just going to keep seeing the escalation by these outside groups, because the action is at the state level,” Lauritsen said.

Gavin Geis of Common Cause Nebraska said he has seen outside spending every year in Nebraska legislative races, “but not like this.” He said the increased spending by such groups drives up the costs for ordinary Nebraskans to run for public office.

“I have never seen an organization like this spend this much money and be almost exclusively funded by out-of-state interests,” Geis said. “This is the biggest cash dump I’ve seen in a long time.”

Katie Linehan said Nebraska is a priority for the American Federation for Children, because “we finally see an opportunity to give kids and families who want more educational options that chance.”

She said local donors and supporters organized first, then reached out to the national group.

Dunixi Guereca of Stand for Schools of Nebraska, which advocates to protect public schools and public school funding, said people should understand the costs of “out-of-state money being spent on “out-of-state solutions.”

LB 753 would cap the annual tax credits claimed at $25 million a year for the first three years. In the fourth year, the credit could increase by 25%, as long as 90% of the credit is claimed. The bill’s credit will hit $100 million a year, starting in 2033.

Supporters of the bill have said it would offer families of children who want but cannot afford a private education a chance to obtain one. 

In other states that have passed similar measures, about 70% of the credits have gone to the families of students already attending private schools.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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