Public Dollars for Public Schools

During committee hearing testimony on a tax scheme outlined in LB753, Governor Jim Pillen said the quiet part out loud.

“We all agree we don't want Iowa to beat us… Yet Iowa just committed $345 million a year to their budget to help support private schools. This [LB 753] is a step and I believe it's a really important step.”

It’s a fact the Governor – perhaps inadvertently – made clear:  LB753 is only the first step in moving towards a massive, multi-million dollar voucher system in Nebraska. The bill would let corporations and the wealthy avoid paying up to 50% of their income taxes while reducing revenue to the state’s general fund by millions of dollars, dollars that are needed to support Nebraska’s public schools and other essential public services. Under LB753, public funds would be diverted to private and parochial schools, including those that discriminate against children and their families. In other states, vouchers have proven to be enormously expensive and ineffective.

As public schools grapple with an increased need for student support and chronic underfunding, NSEA members have continued the fight to keep public dollars from being siphoned away from public schools and given to private schools.

Public Funds and Opportunity

Wes Jensen is in his 15th year of teaching and his fourth year within the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) District. Jensen currently teaches at the Secondary Success Program (SSP), which serves as the middle school alternative program for OPS. 

“When I hear the word opportunity, I don’t think of private schools. For many of my students who haven’t done well in a traditional public school classroom, SSP is an opportunity. With the structure we provide—behaviorally, socially, academically, and emotionally—they do well. A big reason SSP students are so successful is our small class sizes. I can only wonder what kind of opportunities we could create for all Nebraska students if the funding was there to provide smaller classes for everyone,” said Jensen. “It’s not going to happen if the state is planning to take $25 million plus away from public schools.” 

Students and Families 

Kathy Poehling is Vice President of Advocacy of the Omaha Education Association and currently teaches fifth grade at Castelar Elementary School. Poehling says Castelar has one of the highest student populations of English language learners (ELL) within OPS.  

“Success looks different for every student. When I think about my students, I think about the opportunity that my students have that their parents never had. Many of the parents I work with don’t read or write English. Some of them have had only a few years of schooling. These are not parents who are going to fill out a private school application for their child,” said Poehling.

Private Schools and Discrimination

Private schools can choose to accept or reject any student, and many have long waiting lists and only admit top students. Private schools can discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, citizen status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or special education status.
Courtney Gerdes, an early childhood special education teacher, has seen the selection process of private schools firsthand. 

“I have seen private schools refuse to take some of the students I have served. We have had parents who try to enroll their students in a private school’s kindergarten class and these private schools will interrogate our staff on how much Special Education support the student will need,” explained Gerdes.

“Some parents I know have found that the private school has accepted an older sibling but then won’t accept their younger child because of the student’s special education status.” 

The Need to Address  PK-12 Staffing

Tax dollars that would be siphoned away to pay for this scheme would otherwise be available to help fund Nebraska’s public schools and other state priorities like public health and safety. Nebraska already consistently ranks 49th in the nation for state support of K-12 education and, as a result, has some of the highest property taxes in the country.  Jensen, Poehling and Gerdes all agree that lawmakers must prioritize fully staffing and funding the K-12 schools by investing more state funding in public education. 

“Due to staffing, I've seen schools 'mainstream' some students who would normally be in a self-contained classroom for one-on-one instruction. Since those classrooms have been shut down because of staffing those students are placed in regular classrooms with 20 other students. It causes disruptions in learning but also classroom safety issues for students and teachers,” explained Poehling. “That's not just a money problem, it's a people problem. But we need money to pay our paraeducators more, we need to make sure all educators are making a living wage so it's still a profession people want to enter.” 

For his part, Jensen urged legislators to prioritize fully staffing and funding the PK-12 schools that serve the majority of Nebraska children. 

“Public schools are the ones stepping up to provide opportunities for families," he said. "Public education and public educators are making sure that the majority of Nebraska kids have a safe space to grow and develop in their learning environment. Taxpayers should not be asked to support two school systems.”