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More wins in education

The 60-day legislative session that concluded April 20 was a doozy by any account. With less than two years of experience I’m a relative neophyte in the policy world. But the grizzled veterans in the lobby only confirmed the obvious as they shook their heads and murmured, “I’ve never seen a session like this.” Yet as the dust settles the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) can once again claim a strong showing across the spectrum of issues, including education.

My role is to advocate on behalf of our bishops for the 112 Catholic schools in Nebraska; nearly 30,000 students across the three dioceses. The goals are to form and support policies that help our schools, defend against policies that hurt, and find common ground with public education lobbyists on issues universal to education.

Never in my 20 years as an educator has education been a hotter topic for conversation, debate, and media coverage. It’s no surprise that this legislative session was rife with education bills – nearly 60 of them! Here are some of the major issues we worked on at the Catholic Conference:

School Choice Losses: A priority issue for the Church is enabling parents to choose the best educational setting for their child. While 48 states have school choice policy of some kind, Nebraska has not joined the party. Scholarship Tax Credits again had the necessary votes to pass this session (needing 25 it received 28) but could not get the 33 votes to beat filibuster. The NCC worked very hard on this issue with our champion, Senator Lou Ann Linehan.

Another major effort for the NCC was directing American Rescue Plan (ARP) Dollars to Education Recovery Accounts (ERAs). ERAs would have benefited low-income public and nonpublic school students alike with $2,000 grants to offset COVID learning losses using federal (not state) dollars. Sadly, ERAs were also defeated. Public schools opposed this entire program for Nebraska’s low-income students because some of it would have benefited students in nonpublic schools.

But while defeat is always bitter, we have reason for hope....

School Choice Progress: This session saw a record four school choice bills brought forth by Senators Linehan, Ben Hansen, Joni Albrecht, and Tom Brewer. While none found passage in 2022, this wave of momentum carries us into the 2023 session. With education as a priority for many voters, Nebraska is preparing to crash that School Choice party sooner than later.

Teacher Retention: Nebraska faces an urgent teacher shortage crisis. As we noted in our hearing testimony, student loan debt is a major reason teachers leave the profession: they simply do not earn enough income to effectively diminish their debt. This is exacerbated when they begin to raise a family. Senator Linehan’s “Teach in Nebraska Today Act” delivers some relief by providing teachers $5,000 annually in loan forgiveness for up to five years.

Teacher Recruitment: It’s one thing to keep teachers in schools, it’s another to recruit new ones to the profession. That’s just what Senator Ray Aguilar’s “Nebraska Career Scholarship Act” does by providing millions of scholarship dollars to students who choose high-need professions like teaching. And, as the NCC noted in this hearing testimony, college students can use these dollars at any college or university they choose – public or faith-based. LB902 is just another example of how and why school choice would work at the elementary and high school levels.

Removing Red Tape: Nationally notorious for its onerous teacher certification processes, the Nebraska Department of Education is now directed by the legislature’s passing of LB1218 to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles keeping high quality teachers from joining Nebraska classrooms and provide greater flexibility to qualified applicants for admission to educator preparation programs. In other words, standardized testing requirements (Praxis) will be eased for those entering teachers colleges, and reciprocity will be enhanced for those coming from out of state.

The NCC was also very active on dozens of other bills, like the expansion of the “Farm to School” program. But the truth is that in a short and contentious session many bills simply did not make the cut. That provides plenty of opportunity in 2023 after the elections. But first things first as we close the school year: Thank you to our amazing teachers and administrators. They’ve navigated two historically difficult years with grace, courage, and dignity. When you see them, thank them and let them know they are in our prayers. It is my honor to represent their inspiring work.

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