When I interviewed for the role of associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) I was basically unaware of the organization’s vital role. I had been in education as an administrator, coach, and teacher for more than 15 years, but was not aware that the NCC acts as both the spear (advocate) and shield (protector) on matters of incredible consequence to Nebraska Catholics: life, marriage, religious freedom, human dignity, and education.
Despite this ignorance, the Lord consistently asked me to consider living up to the NCC motto of “Bearing the light of Christ in the public square.” He asked me to be open to departing a principalship I loved, to very publicly wear my faith on my sleeve in a trying culture, and to trust His nudges by interviewing for the NCC’s open education policy position.
When Msgr. John Perkinton opened the interview by asking how much time I planned to spend in my office, I chuckled at another “nudge” as a memory rushed in: My first year in education, I inherited an old wooden teacher’s chair on which was painted “Don’t Sit for Long.”
I am departing the NCC and moving on to a new and critically important venture in education. As I leave, I hope I lived up to the Lord’s call. I also hope my work definitively answered Monsignor’s question.
Being a Christian in today’s culture, and certainly working for the Church, requires getting off the bench, removing any compartmentalization of one’s faith, and “speaking truth in love” in the public square. In other words, you can’t be stuck in your office and you certainly can’t sit for long. Or to quote Pope Benedict and Pope Francis: you can’t sit on the sidelines in the fight for justice.
In my time at the NCC, I have done more than 100 school visits, traveled the U.S., spoken to dozens of groups, partnered with colleagues around the country and at the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, experienced countless hours of hearings, and spent long nights in the rotunda of the Capitol. That level of effort and drive makes me no different from my heroic colleagues at the NCC.
Angie Korus runs our daily operations and is an inspiration as a wife and mother, professional, and person of faith. Paige Brown is a sparkplug defending the sanctity of life and drives all the amazing communications the NCC delivers. Megan “The Intern” Fehr should give us all hope in the future – she is a young woman filled with joy, hope, and passion for the Church.
As for my NCC partners in the trenches at the Capitol, Executive Director Tom Venzor is a leader among his peers around the country and the steady hand that guides the NCC through cultural landmines and social snares. Also, there is literally no better mind than Marion Miner’s when it comes to the dignity of life and protection of the family. It was my privilege to witness their work on a daily basis. Nebraska Catholics have the best of the best representing them, period. I was honored and humbled to be a part of that team.
Of course, all the good work at the NCC begins and ends with our state’s three bishops. Archbishop George Lucas (Omaha), Bishop James Conley (Lincoln), and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt (Grand Island) can each stand on their own merits. As a “conference,” however, no state has better leadership: devout, determined, and always focused on Christ. I likewise tip my cap to our Catholic “leadership council” of superintendents Vickie Kauffold (Omaha), Deacon Matt Hecker and Father Lawrence Stoley (Lincoln), and Jordan Engle (Grand Island). Again, incredible Catholic educational leadership across our state.
In attempting to match my colleagues’ excellence, we were blessed with amazing education victories these last few years. The NCC helped deliver roughly $50 million in COVID relief to 36,000 nonpublic school students. I was proud to coordinate that effort for more than 200 schools, and partner with federal and state officials to deliver vital resources to kids and schools. All of this occurred inside a crucible of urgency and regulation.
Success was also found in pivotal legislation opening teaching opportunities to students, adult professionals, and substitute teachers. I am proud of our work on transformative bills related to teacher student loan forgiveness (“Teach in Nebraska Today Act”), student safety (the Safe2Help Hotline and school safety grants), and the Textbook Loan Program (creating important modernizations and increasing funding 300%).
But the bill that will always hang central on the wall is Nebraska’s first school choice bill – LB753, “The Opportunity Scholarship Act.” Regardless of how hard opponents try to steal educational freedom from children, no one can take away the fact that school choice passed in Nebraska with a super-majority of senators in 2023. And friends, the Catholic Conference led that charge for over a dozen years to secure this victory. We may have been the last state to pass school choice, but we don’t sit for long – this is just the beginning.
Speaking of which, I plan to take the mindset to my new role that made us so successful at the NCC. I will be directing a scholarship granting organization called Opportunity Scholarships Nebraska (OSN). This nonprofit will turn charitable donations and tax credit contributions from taxpayers into educational hope and freedom for students prioritized by the Opportunity Scholarships Act. OSN is a statewide venture serving all students and nonpublic schools in Nebraska. Besides fundraising and scholarship awarding, OSN will educate taxpayers, schools, families, and officials on the vital importance of empowering parents as the primary educators of their children. Joining me at OSN is a former NCC colleague I have always held in high regard and enjoyed working with – Lauren (Garcia) Gage. We have a great team forming and I encourage you to learn more by visiting www.NebraskaOpportunity.org.
You may be unaware, as I once was, of the incredible impact of this amazing NCC team. Many of the freedoms and rights we take for granted as Nebraska Catholics were created and are protected by the tireless team “bearing the light of Christ in the public square.” In departing, I applaud and honor the NCC, and I ask you lift them up with your support and prayers.