NSEA, Members Decry Higher Ed Budget Cuts

Public higher education in Nebraska is at substantial risk with the governor’s budget proposal to further cut funding for the university system, community colleges and state colleges.

That was the message NSEA – and a stream of other higher education supporters – delivered to state senators during legislative committee hearings in February.

NSEA was at the Appropriations Committee hearing to oppose the cuts, which would mean a loss of more than 12 percent in state funding for state colleges and community colleges. The University of Nebraska system’s cut of $34 million over two years would represent nearly 45 percent of all state budget cuts proposed by the governor.

“Now is the time for the leadership in the Legislature to say ‘enough is enough,’” NSEA’s Director of Research Larry Scherer told the Appropriations Committee.

“It is time to look for reasonable and temporary revenue enhancements to avoid deeper, irreparable damage to public higher education,” he said. “NSEA will stand in support of a reasonable package of combined reductions, use of cash reserves and enhanced revenues. We will continue to oppose irresponsible, one-sided budget reductions that inflict damage on public higher education and Nebraska’s bright future.”

Dr. Will Aviles, a professor of political science and president of the University of Nebraska at Kearney Education Association, told senators the proposed cuts would further spike tuition at UNK, which has increased 40 percent over the past 10 years.

He said students who attend UNK are disproportionately first-generation students from middle and working-class families.

“They often choose UNK because of its combination of quality instruction and affordability.  Past cuts have made this goal increasingly more difficult for UNK to achieve – and the currently proposed cuts to higher education will make it even less likely that tomorrow’s students will be able to afford and obtain a degree at UNK,” he said.

NSEA President Jenni Benson asked senators to consider the economic development side of the budget cuts, and take a Chamber of Commerce perspective. She said state college officials have indicated up to 80 jobs could be lost with these cuts, while UNK has said nearly 40 faculty positions could be lost.

“If a company with 100 or more jobs hinted at pulling up stakes and heading to another state, or shuttering factory doors altogether, would not everyone from the chamber to city and state officials pull out all stops in an effort to save those jobs?” she said.

“We ask you to do the same. Pull out all the stops. These jobs are about more than producing widgets – these jobs contribute directly to the economic stability and future – the innovation, entrepreneurship and prosperity – of our Nebraska economy,” said Benson.

Evann Vrana, a UNL senior and representative of NSEA’s Student Education Association of Nebraska (SEAN), attended the hearing and submitted testimony opposing the budget cuts and expressing concern that future students will face higher tuition as well as fewer opportunities for the “phenomenal education and faculty” from which she has benefitted.

Senators were considering hundreds of bills, but with the legislative session nearing the halfway point by March 1, it was clear that few would find a way to passage. Among those NSEA is watching are these:

Elimination of State Board – Oppose

Benson spoke forcefully against a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the Nebraska State Board of Education. Sen. John Murante’s plan would also make the commissioner of education a political appointee of the governor. Benson said Nebraskans have a voice in public education through the election of eight state board members from across the state.
LR285CA “would erase the right of Nebraska’s citizens to have a direct link to education policy development by moving education policy directly into the hands of one person: the governor,” said Benson. “Nebraskans do not want less direct citizen-based control of education policy – yet that would be the effect of this proposal.”

Accountability Bureaucracy – Oppose
NSEA’s Jay Sears offered staunch opposition to LB1116 (Sen. Lou Ann Linehan), a bill to create an additional state bureaucracy for accountability and reporting of public schools, school districts and learning communities. He pointed out that the State Board of Education already fills that role.
“Nebraskans do not want, nor do they need, an unelected bureaucratic commission duplicating the work already being done by their elected Board of Education,” he said.

Tax Fairness, Part I – Support
NSEA supports Sen. Justin Wayne’s LB728, which favors tax fairness and raises significant revenue.

Benson said Nebraska Department of Revenue data shows the effective state income tax rate for taxpayers with Federal Adjusted Gross Income of over $1 million is less than four-tenths of one percent.

“While the top bracket tax rate is 6.84 percent, the myriad of deductions and credits mean the actual effective rate is by far the lowest of all the lower income groups,” said Benson. For example, the effective tax rate of taxpayers with Federal AGI of between $15,000 and $20,000 is 1.94 percent – nearly four times the rate of those earning more than a $1 million per year.

Tax Fairness, Part II – Support
Benson voiced support for LB1074, which would increase the state income tax rate for taxpayers above $100,000, or $200,000 joint, to 7.84 percent. The bill adds a surtax of 1 percent to incomes over $1 million and 2 percent above $2 million. The bill would help the state address the current $180 million budget shortfall.

“We urge the Revenue Committee to be a part of the solution and move toward creation of a fair and sustainable tax structure that can provide adequate revenues for our schools and colleges, rather than looking solely to cuts in the state and local budgets,” she said.

A Well-Trained Workforce — Support
Sen. Burke Harr’s LB1108 would offer tax credits and a ½ cent sales tax for school foundation aid and invests in job training. Internships, child care and child care employees among other things. It would also increase state aid to K-12 schools by about $71 million each year.

Early Childhood Education — Support
Sears told the Education Committee that quality early childhood education programs pay dividends that may reach $13 for each $1 invested. LB877 incentivizes school districts to provide quality early childhood education by increasing the state aid reimbursement from 60 percent to 100 percent.

“Early childhood students deserve to be supported and weighted for state aid just as much as are their older, full-time fellow students,” said Sears.

Dyslexia Resources — Support
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks’ LB1052 would require students identified as dyslexic to be provided with an evidence-based approach for reading and writing instruction. NSEA worked with Pansing Brooks on development of the bill.

NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell told the Education Committee LB1052 had much input from classroom teachers. She also said NSEA supports mandating dyslexia training in teacher education programs. NSEA, she said, plans to build training on dyslexia into the Association’s statewide professional development program.

“Every teacher will likely have a student with dyslexia in their career and teachers need to know how to help those students,” she said.

Suspension Resources — Support
Fennell also testified in support of Sen. Tony Vargas’ LB999, which seeks to minimize the effect of school suspension on a student’s academic needs by clearly stating that a student must have an opportunity to make up missed class work and homework.

“It is important that we have multiple avenues of response to student behaviors, and we must ensure that those consequences still allow a student a path towards academic success,” she said.

State Aid Study — Support
NSEA Director of Research Larry Scherer called LB1001 ‘forward-thinking’ legislation. It provides for a study of school finance in Nebraska. The last such study took place in 1989, and culminated in the current state aid formula.

Sen. Tom Briese’s LB1084 (see sidebar) also proposes a study of Nebraska’s system of providing state dollars to K-12 schools.

Financial Literacy — Oppose
Sears testified against LB1094, which would provide for financial literacy and entrepreneurship standards. Sears said it would largely duplicate work already in place through the Nebraska Department of Education’s Rule 10.

Overreach on Americanism – Oppose
Sears told the Education Committee that NSEA opposed LB1069 for two reasons. First, the bill requires a school district’s Americanism Committee to hold at least three meetings each year, one with public testimony. “At a time when government regulations for private enterprise are being cut, abandoned and discarded, it seems that mandating a minimum number of meetings for local school board committees is an extreme overreach,” he said.

Second, the bill required each student to take the 100-question U.S. Immigration test in eighth and 11th grades. “If we want students to become civically engaged and knowledgeable, schools must provide well-developed curriculum that engages students in learning and that does not hinge on a culminating test. Students will memorize the one hundred questions and answers, take the test and ignore the learning and engaging piece of instruction,” he said.

A mid-February vote in the Education Committee, however, failed to advance the bill. Only three of eight committee members favored the bill; five votes are required to advance. LB1069 sponsor Sen. Lydia Brasch prioritized the bill and said she would seek 25 votes to pull the bill out of committee.

Special Education Funding – Support
Benson, a 30-year special education teacher, said that with fewer available resources, special education teachers are expected to be experts in a much wider service area, increasing the difficulty of meeting the needs of all students.

LB876 would reimburse school districts for at least 80 percent of the excess costs of special education services, compared to the current state reimbursement 51-percent rate.

“Not only does it solidify funding for special education, it provides an untold amount of property tax relief,” she said.

Teaching Certificates – Support
Fennell told the Education Committee that NSEA supports LB1135, which allows a teacher with a valid teaching certificate from another state to begin teaching in Nebraska. Fennell said NSEA also supports an amendment to require those teachers to eventually meet Nebraska certification standards.

‘Empowerment Savings’– Oppose
NSEA opposed Kearney Sen. John Lowe’s LB828, which requires that an amount equal to three percent of the state average per pupil cost be deposited into an account for qualifying students at low-performing schools, who are also on free or reduced lunch. Qualified expenses could be withdrawn from each account and used for tutoring and other school costs.

In a letter to the Education Committee, Benson said LB828 would pull needed funding from academic programs. “Diverting funding from a school for the needs of a select few students would have a significant impact on the school’s overall ability to meet the needs of all students,” wrote Benson.

Workplace Leave Benefits – Support
LB844, by Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford, would adopt the Healthy and Safe Families Workplaces Act and would provide expanded leave opportunities for employees when they need time to care for ill family members, or are ill themselves.

Mental Health Aid, I – Support
Benson spoke eloquently in support of LB998 (Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz), which will put a mental health social worker in each of Nebraska’s 19 educational Service Units. That worker would be a contact point for teachers and school officials in search of mental health services for students.

“As a special education teacher of more than 30 years, I know my students with the most difficult behaviors were often dealing with mental health issues or with problems outside of school,” said Benson. “I was often searching for support from others who could help me find better resources for my students and their families.”

Mental Health Aid, II – Support
Sen. Adam Morfeld’s LB982 would allow persons age 18 and older to consent to mental health services. Currently, young adults under age 19 need parental consent.

In a letter to the Judiciary Committee, Benson wrote that “Many times, our teachers are the first to notice that a student in their classroom needs mental health services. Students trust their teachers and may seek mental health help when suggested by a teacher or school counselor.”

Mental Health Aid, III – Support
Sen. John Stinner’s LB801 would create the Panhandle Beginnings Act and offer a pilot program to serve students in need of mental health services. Sears said the pilot would be a template for developing best practices for serving a wide region.

Student Journalists – Support
Morfeld’s LB886 would declare college and public school-sponsored media are public forums, subject to usual First Amendment liberties and limits. It also provides protections for faculty and staff advisers.

The journalistic rights of students must be protected, wrote Benson, and “faculty must be allowed to teach journalism as a respected and protected profession that is crucial to an enlightened and informed citizenry, as well as a healthy democracy.”

Eliminate Levy Limits – Support
Scherer told the Revenue Committee that NSEA has long opposed arbitrary, state-imposed levy limits as a violation of local control. He noted that the state constitution requires the state to provide for the free instruction of students in public schools.

However, just three times in the last 15 years has the Legislature fully funded Nebraska’s obligations under the existing state aid formula. Therefore, NSEA supports the removal of levy caps as offered in LB1077 (Sen. Curt Friesen, Henderson).

“If the Legislature is unable or unwilling to provide adequate funding for our public schools, as per its commitment under TEEOSA (state aid), then it might even be considered unconstitutional to arbitrarily place a limit on a school district’s capacity to raise the needed operational funding on its own,” he said.

Levy Override Votes – Oppose
In a letter to the Revenue Committee, Benson said the requirements of LB1106 are onerous and burdensome. Sen. Linehan’s bill would require a school district seeking a levy override in a special election to be approved by at least half the number of votes cast in that school district in the immediately preceding statewide primary election, plus one.

Benson said that would take away the ability of political subdivisions, including school districts, to use a special election for a levy override.

Building Fund Levy – Support
Scherer said NSEA favors LB1007, which would allow school districts to levy up to 3 cents per $100 for upkeep, renovation and construction of facilities. Many school districts now use their entire $1.05 levy for operational expenses. The building levy would not count toward the $1.05 limit.

Retirement Plan Protections – Support
NSEA Director of Governmental Relations Jason Hayes told the Retirement Committee that LB1005 would protect employers in a multi-employer retirement plan from the business decisions of a single employer in the plan. “Requiring that the financial liability of such business decisions affecting the retirement plan be calculated, and that the withdrawing entity bears those financial liability costs, as well as any administrative costs associated with the change, helps to ensure the continued financial stability of the retirement plan for all participants,” he said.

Tax Increment Financing Transparency – Support
Benson testified in support of LB874, an effort to provide more transparency and accountability in the TIF process. In part, LB874 would allow a school board to appoint a member to the community development authority to represent the school district’s interests. Benson said the school district representative should have voting rights on the authority board. She also urged that the bill provide additional funds to replace lost property tax revenue over the period of repayment for each TIF project.

The SNAP ‘Cliff Effect’ – Support
LB770 (Sen. John McCollister) would allow working families to advance in employment and training programs, and realize greater earnings, without an immediate loss of the vital support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Sears said that when families have food on the table, “children come to school with food in their stomachs and ready to learn.”