Opponents of Nebraska plan to use public money for private school tuition seek ballot initiative

Organizers of an effort to have Nebraska voters weigh in on whether to use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition scholarships said Wednesday they have more than enough signatures to put that question on the November 2024 ballot.

The Support Our Schools effort turned in 117,000 signatures to the Nebraska Secretary of State, who must now verify them. That's nearly double the roughly 60,000 valid signatures needed to make the ballot, and organizers are confident they have met that goal.

“This bill needs to be repealed,” Jenni Benson, a Support Our Schools Nebraska sponsor and president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said at a news conference Wednesday. "This wildly successful petition effort has shown that Nebraskans agree."

The effort was launched even before Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill this spring to funnel millions in taxpayer money from public coffers to scholarships for private school tuition. Support Our Schools was funded mostly through public education unions and individual donations, while public school teachers and advocates volunteered their time to collect signatures at fairs, farmers markets and on street corners across the state.

The bill, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, does not appropriate taxpayer dollars directly toward private school vouchers. Instead, it allows businesses, individuals, estates and trusts to donate a portion of owed state income tax.

Businesses and individuals would be allowed to donate up to $100,000 per year while estates and trusts could offer up to $1 million a year. The bill would allocate $25 million a year over the first two years starting in 2024, and up to $100 million annually thereafter to cover such donations. That dollar-for-dollar tax credit is money that would otherwise go into the state’s general revenue fund.

The money would be overseen and allocated by nonprofit groups, which are subject to a cap of 10% of what they can take from donations for administrative costs. The measure also requires the groups to track and report on scholarship allocations. The plan includes a tier system for scholarships that prioritizes low-income students and those being bullied.

Public school advocates have blasted the measure as a "school voucher scheme” that will hurt the state’s K-12 public school system, arguing that diverting tax dollars to private schools from the state’s general fund is money that could go to struggling public schools. Some lawmakers objected to taxpayer dollars going to private schools that are allowed under religious tenets to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students.

One taxpayer spending watchdog group, OpenSky, has expressed concern that the plan could divert enough students to private schools that enrollment in public schools will drop — causing a drop in state funding tied to schools' student populations.

Supporters of the scholarship program deny that it will hurt funding to public schools, noting that lawmakers also passed a bill this year that will pump more than $1 billion -- mostly from federal pandemic recovery dollars -- into public education.

The plan has seen powerful public education unions square off with heavily funded efforts from school choice groups backed by conservatives trying to make their mark on school policies following COVID-19 lockdowns and amid battles over transgender policies.

The American Federation for Children — founded by Betsy DeVos, who was Secretary of Education in the Trump administration — poured more than $500,000 into a group set up to thwart the petition initiative. That group, Keep Kids First Nebraska, used the money to fund a blizzard of ads and a recent mass mailing to registered Nebraska voters that appeared as a letter from Republican Gov. Jim Pillen — though not on the governor's officials letterhead — urging voters not to sign the petition. It even included an affidavit form one could fill out in an effort to have their signature removed from the petition if they'd already signed.

Keep Kids First said in a written statement it would continue its campaign to sway Nebraska voters to support the private school scholarship measure and railed against the petition effort, adding the Support Our Schools effort is “obsessively attempting to rip opportunity away from the children and families that need it most.”