This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.
LINCOLN — Public school advocates flooded the steps of the State Capitol on Saturday morning in anticipation of a final vote on whether Nebraska should finally adopt some form of public funding for private schools.
The Legislature is preparing for a final vote in the coming weeks on Legislative Bill 753, proposed by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn.
However, protesters Saturday had a message for lawmakers: “Not in Nebraska.”
Linehan has fought during her seven years in office to allow students to attend private schools through some form of “school choice” legislation. North Dakota is the only other state without some sort of school choice legislation (the state’s governor rejected a school choice proposal earlier this month).
Linehan’s proposal would permit state tax credits for those who donate to organizations providing scholarships to students attending private schools. A legislative fiscal note estimates 5,000 students could use the scholarships to switch to private schools. Critics say the approach would siphon public dollars away from public schools.
Leading up to Saturday’s rally, teachers who had been meeting in downtown Lincoln marched to the Capitol, shouting in support of public schools and public funding.
Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the rally was a “tremendous show of strength and support” for public schools.
Nebraskans have rejected “school choice” efforts three times already, she added, “and we’re going to do it again.”
LB 753 has maintained support through two rounds of votes, including from State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, both of Omaha.
If the measure succeeds in the final round and is signed into law, advocates on Saturday committed to bringing a final decision to the people.
“If we have to go to the ballot, we will show them that our Nebraskans support public schools,” Benson said. “They support public educators, and most of all, they support all kids.”
‘Promise’ to Nebraska children
State Sen. George Dungan, a freshman senator from Lincoln, told the crowd he has advanced to where he is because of public schools.
After graduating from Lincoln Southwest High School, Dungan attended college in Kansas, where he saw the “Brownback experiment” fail.
In 2012, then-Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a bill to dramatically cut taxes, which caused revenues to plummet. Dungan said teachers couldn’t get paid and schools couldn’t open, with the state failing to fulfill its promise to each and every child.
“That promise is to our children that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from and no matter what you believe, you will always have a seat in our classrooms,” Dungan said.
Duff Martin, a Wisconsin educator and executive committee member for the National Education Association, encouraged Nebraskans to keep fighting and to “not become Wisconsin.”
Instead of saving taxpayers money, Martin said similar proposals have drained public school funds while benefiting those who are wealthy.
Benson and others on Saturday said shifting support to “unaccountable” private, religious or charter schools would allow them to “intentionally discriminate” based on race, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Dunixi Guereca, executive director of Stand For Schools, which advocates for public schools and public school funding, said LB 753 invests in “school choice schemes,” not students.
“This bill is not about giving students choice, it’s about giving schools choice,” Guereca said. “Choice to pick and choose the students that they serve, unlike public schools that serve all students.”
Increasing general support for education
Rather than opportunity scholarships, advocates such as Dungan said Nebraska must first provide improvements for teachers.
He said the state must do everything it can to provide financial and emotional support, telling the crowd he has friends who wanted to be teachers their whole lives and then quit the work just a year or two after starting.
“I don’t blame them,” Dungan said. “They’re in a world where they’re not supported by our state and by other institutions, and they’re in a world where they’re being told that the things they’re saying have to be moderated and monitored by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”
After the rally, Dungan told the Nebraska Examiner that Nebraska succeeds in part because of its strong support for public schools across the state.
Though the odds seem to be in favor of LB 753 of passing, based on previous vote counts, Dungan encouraged people to maintain hope and fight for the “centerpiece” of the community.
“I know the road to get here has been somewhat arduous — and I know that sometimes this session it’s been hard to have hope — but look at this last week, folks,” Dungan told the crowd, a nod to a failed vote Thursday to further restrict abortion. “I’m asking you to stand and fight and join with me as we continue to fight for our schools.”
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