Friends in Christ, Jeremy Ekeler here, live from the State Capitol, Room 1524. It’s the afternoon of February 3, 2023. The Revenue Committee is having a legislative hearing for LB753 – Opportunity Scholarships. I hope this real-time commentary on the legislative hearing of our premiere school choice bill provides a glimpse into the process.
As a quick refresher, LB753 provides $25 million in tax credits to individuals who donate to a scholarship granting organization (SGO). The SGOs then turn this money around into private school scholarships. SGOs must give priority preference to the most vulnerable students: below 213% poverty, in the foster system, the child of a military service member, children with special needs, and those who have been bullied.
As I write this on this Feast of Saint Blaise, I’m happy to report that there are 31 senators co-sponsoring and the push for passage into law is being led by Governor Jim Pillen. Ultimately the bill will need 33 votes. We are hopeful this could finally be the year for school choice in Nebraska.
The hearing begins promptly at 1:30 p.m. LB753 is technically a tax bill, so this hearing is in front the Revenue Committee (rather than Education Committee). Senator Lou Ann Linehan must leave her position as Revenue Committee Chair because LB753 is her bill. The room is full and testifiers are instructed to give three minutes of testimony instead of the usual five.
Senator Linehan presents her bill beautifully by preempting opponent arguments that LB753 will take money from public schools, that private schools do not serve vulnerable children, and that school choice is unconstitutional.
Traditionally, proponents testify prior to opponents, and the first proponent to testify on LB753 is Governor Jim Pillen. It is extremely rare for a governor to testify at a legislative committee, but this demonstrates Pillen’s full-throttle support for school choice. His firm and energetic closing meets the moment: “We cannot let one kid fall through the cracks. LB753 has my full endorsement and support.”
On that momentum, more proponents step up to testify. The supporters are students, parents, and educators. Stories abound about being saved from cycles of poverty, finding necessary learning assistance, exercising religious beliefs, and discovering schools that feel like home. So impressive are the stories that an opposing senator prompts the crowd to applaud for the students who testified. It’s not until after those directly affected – kids and parents – that a lowly lobbyist (me) speaks at the conclusion.
And so, two-and-a-half hours later, the supporters of school choice are done. Opponents now get their turn.
It’s 4 p.m. and the first 10 opponents to school choice are a contrast to the student and parent supporters. There are four public school administrators, three public school lobbyists, and three adult citizens.
Early opposition argues that a tax credit takes money from public schools. Senator Brad von Gillern (Omaha) elicits a response from an opponent admitting that we have over 30 other tax credits that public schools do not oppose. Von Gillern also points out that tax credits are not tax dollars – they are an incentive to donors; the money never actually goes into state coffers.
The next opponents switch gears with claims that public schools take all students and private schools discriminate. Senator Kathleen Kauth (Millard) points out egregious student achievement gaps and test scores in some public schools. Senator Dave Murman (Glenvil) notes that public schools routinely reject students with special needs who try to transfer into a district that will better serve them.
Two hours into opposition testimony and the shots at faith-based schools are now bitter: “We (the state) cannot support these schools that hurt our children,” says an opponent. Some testifiers speculate how LGBTQ students would be treated in faith-based schools. Other testifiers talk about their own negative personal experiences in private schools. Ironically, these arguments simply demonstrate that exercising choice helps students find the school that best fits them.
As the evening concludes, an overarching contradiction remains in the opponent argument: faith-based schools are somehow both inferior, discriminatory institutions… but LB753 would lead to a potential mass exodus into said schools.
With the weak rational arguments against educational opportunity exhausted, opponents resorted to defensive, redundant, and angry arguments. Proponents focused on children and opportunity and hope for a bright future. We are confident LB753 will soar to the next stage in the process – floor debate and vote. Please pray for Nebraska to join the other 48 states who have passed school choice policy. Visit www. NEcatholic.org/TakeAction to e-mail your Senator about LB753!