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Let's talk about textbooks!

If you’ve had a kid in Catholic school, there is a very good chance you’ve filled out paperwork for the textbook loan program. Maybe you knew it, maybe you didn’t. And if you didn’t have a kid in Catholic school, you might be asking: what on earth is the textbook loan program?

Great question. Thanks for asking! Let’s answer it, because the textbook loan program (“TLP”) is on its way to having a makeover. Sen. Mike McDonnell of South Omaha (LD5) has introduced LB647, which would make critical updates to the TLP that will ultimately benefit parents of non-public school students.

TLP began in 1989 and provides K-12 school students in approved (Rule 14) and accredited (Rule 10) non-public schools to receive loaned instructional materials. (A shout-out to one of my predecessors, Jim Cunningham, for all his work over the years to craft, advance, and defend TLP.  Little fact: Jim defended TLP before the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled the program constitutional!)

Currently, the materials loaned to private school children must be the same materials used in the public school district in which the child resides or the school district in which the private school the child attends is located. At the time of its creation, learning materials were traditional paperback and hardback textbooks. Today, after an update in 2016, textbooks also include digital resources, consumables, and dynamic curriculum located online.

TLP is funded by the Nebraska Legislature in its biennial budget (which is currently being debated). Historically, the program was funded at around $400,000 per year (or approximately $13 per child, per year). A couple of years ago, with the advocacy of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, then-Governor Pete Ricketts increased the program to $1.4 million per year (or approximately $42 per student, per year). This increase has provided a more meaningful appropriation to families seeking the best educational setting for their children.

Unfortunately, many parents and non-public schools choose not to engage in TLP, for three main reasons. First, TLP has become overly burdensome for the front offices of schools—both public and non-public. Second, the amount of funds currently appropriated, given the burden of TLP, is not worth the effort for a number of non-public school families and schools. Finally, the resources and materials currently available are not the most helpful.

Sen. McDonnell’s LB647 would make three important changes to modernize TLP. First, rather than have TLP be operated by each individual public school district, TLP would be centralized at the Nebraska Department of Education. Second, nonpublic school students would be given access to learning materials from outside of their public school district. Third, LB647 would create efficiencies for schools, parents, and public school districts, which have been successful in other states with similar programs.

Centralization of the program is important because of the need for uniformity. Currently, public school districts operate TLP in different ways. This makes it difficult for non-public schools to know exactly how the program will operate across the state. Also, the lack of centralization means each public school district must manage TLP for itself. But, at the hearing for LB647, public school representatives testified about the front office burden, which is a similar burden experienced by non-public school front office staff.

Creating more robust access to learning materials is also crucial. Limiting learning materials only to those used in the local public school district is arbitrary in an age of digital resources and student mobility. For example, Roncalli in Omaha has students from 27 ZIP codes; Grand Island Central Catholic serves students from more than seven public school districts; and Boys Town has students from all over the country.

Modernizing the program is another important element. The current program is administered completely on paper, which is unacceptable in a digital age. While not explicitly stated in LB647, the Nebraska Department of Education plans to move the program to an online application and tracking system.

LB647 is common sense legislation. This is why it was supported by public and non-public school organizations, such as Missouri Synod Lutheran Schools, Omaha Street School, the Nebraska State Education Association, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, and yours truly, the Nebraska Catholic Conference. LB647 met no opposition at the hearing or when it was advanced from the Education Committee on a 7-0 vote.

Sen. Mike McDonnell was critical to getting the bill designated as a priority by the Speaker of the Legislature and amended into the Education Committee’s priority bill, which was just advanced to second round of legislative debate.

The hope is that in a few weeks, LB647 will have been passed into law and we will be on the path to a more robust, nimble, and helpful TLP for Nebraska’s non-public school children!

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