Suite of Bills Invests in Students

NSEA Joins Alliance Favoring Ed Legislation

Growing income inequality means more students arrive at the schoolhouse door each day with growing needs and challenges.

Meanwhile, the state has been lowering its state aid investment in children and public schools.

An alliance of education and religious organizations, including NSEA, have partnered to support a suite of bills now before the Nebraska Legislature. The package proposes investments in Nebraska’s future that will help public school students perform even better.

The bills would broaden mental health services for children in public and private schools; give greater access to a supplemental nutrition program for children in poverty; upgrade the state’s investment in early childhood education; offer more career training options; and increase the investment in special education; among other items.

Many of the proposals would result in direct property tax relief and superb return on investment.

“We have growing needs, shrinking budgets and an overreliance on property taxes,” said Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director for Stand for Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing public education in Nebraska.

“Those factors exacerbate inequality, overburdens taxpayers and harms our must vulnerable kids,” said Hunter-Pirtle.

Click each heading to read more on the bills proposed, summarized below:

Special Education Support

  • LB876, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski, would require the state to reimburse school districts for at least 80 percent of allowable costs for special education programs. The state now reimburses for about 49 percent.

 

Investment Rather Than Divestment

“The answer to public schools’ challenges is not divestment or privatization in the form of charter schools, vouchers, or tax credits—it is investment in our children and our state’s future,” said Hunter-Pirtle.
Among other highlights in the package:

  • Behavioral health: LB998 by Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz creates a school behavioral and mental health program in Nebraska’s 19 Educational Service Units. Under the plan, a social worker will staff each ESU and would connect students with local mental health and behavioral health services. The effort would be funded by a public-private partnership.
  • Early Childhood: NSEA supports LR270CA, a plan that would extend the ages of children eligible for public education from ages 5 to 21 to ages 3 to 21. The extension of early childhood education would pay big benefits, NSEA President Jenni Benson told the Education Committee on Jan. 23.

    Also offered by Sen. Kolowski is LB877, which would increase the early childhood funding in the state aid formula from 60 percent to 100 percent. This bill would also offer a great return on investment, as well as direct property tax relief.

  • Expanded Learning Opportunities: LB246 allows a school district to exceed its budget limitation for expanded learning opportunity programs, providing students with programming, support and activities after school, on weekends and when school is not in session, under the bill introduced by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld. “Many school districts in the state, especially in rural areas, do not currently have the authority to invest in these kinds of programs, even if the funds are available,” said Morfeld.
  • Career Education: LB575, by Sen. Kolowski, establishes a new aid program and requires the State Department of Education to provide funding for education programs of excellence and for additional student training and certification. Also offered is LB1108, by Sen. Burke Harr, Omaha, creates the Youth Opportunities in Learning and Occupations Fund and offers grants to certain employers and nonprofit corporations providing programs, services, or training that results in employment.
  • School Nutrition: LB770 makes sure children have nutritious food to eat not just during the school day, but throughout the year. Omaha Sen. John McCollister proposal would raise the income eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to 158 percent of the federal poverty level for families from 130 percent. And from Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz is LB771, which would remove the co-pay that low-income students must pay for school breakfast and lunch. Eliminating the cost removes the final barrier for these children, allowing them to eat breakfast and lunch at school each day, and to learn without the pain and worry that accompanies hunger. “Nobody learns when they are hungry,” said Walz.

 

Plan Would Eliminate State Board of Education

NSEA is also monitoring a slew of bills that affect teachers and students. Those bills include:

  • Eliminate the State Board of Education: NSEA opposes LR285CA, a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate the Nebraska State Board of Education and let the governor appoint a Commissioner of Education. It was proposed by Sen. John Murante.
  • Building Funds: NSEA opposes LB778, by Sen. Mike Groene, North Platte, which would require school districts to get voter approval for any improvement, repair or minor expansion of facilities, however minor, before utilizing special building funds for such projects.

    Also, LB1106, by Linehan, would make it nearly impossible for any school district to approve a levy override or bond issue. The provisions require approval of such issues by a majority of voters, plus at least half the registered voters in the school district in the last primary or general election. NSEA opposes LB1106.

  • Early childhood education: NSEA supports two companion bills, LB768 and LB880, which link early childhood education and economic development. Both are proposed by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne.

    LB880 would require an early childhood education element in comprehensive plans for cities.

    LB768 redefines the term “economic development programs” to include early childhood infrastructure development that will support early childhood education programs of recognized quality, as determined by the rating criteria provided under the Step Up to Quality Child Care Act.

  • Sunscreen: NSEA supports LB688, which permits students enrolled in public schools to possess and use a broad spectrum topical sunscreen without a note or prescription from a licensed health care professional. The bill was offered by Sen. Carol Blood, Bellevue.

 

Competing Plans Try to Balance the Stool

Briese Offers Best Property Tax Relief Plan

NSEA sees a plan by Albion Sen. Tom Briese as the most reasonable and has thrown support behind his LB1084.  Here are the plans:

  • Briese’s LB1084 would broaden the sales tax base, add a high-earner income tax and increase the sales tax by a half cent.  The increased state funding would be directed to K-12 education and property tax relief.  The bill would also remove a long list of current sales tax exemptions.
  • LB947, introduced by Sen. Jim Smith, Papillion, on behalf of the governor, would provide a refundable credit of up to 10 percent of property taxes, capped at $230 for homeowners. There is no cap for ag landowners, and out-of-state landowners do not qualify.
  • LB829, introduced by Sen. Steve Erdman, Bayard, would create a refundable state income tax credit of 50 percent of property taxes paid to schools. That would require the state to come up with more than $1 billion in property tax refunds – one quarter of the entire state budget.  The bill offers no revenue sources for those refunds.

LB1084 is the most reasonable, fiscally responsible offering now before senators.

If lawmakers fail to address the property tax issue, signatures are now being collected to place a version of Erdman’s LB829 on the ballot in November.  NSEA urges members NOT to sign the property tax petition.

 

Two Proposals Threaten Funding For K-12 Schools, Colleges, University

Voucher, Tax Credit Scams are Fiscally Irresponsible

LB295 and LB804 were proposed by Sen. Jim Smith, Omaha, and Sen. Lydia Brasch, Tekamah, respectively. Both would rob public tax dollars from the state treasury and funnel those dollars to private or corporate schools. Diverting state tax dollars to private and corporate interests erodes funding for short-changed K-12 schools, as well as community colleges, state colleges and the University of Nebraska, all of which have seen near-crippling cuts in recent years. NSEA strongly opposes both bills.

LB295 would give corporate and individual taxpayers a tax credit for contributing to private scholarship-granting groups such as a private or charter school. Corporations could claim a credit of $150,000 per year; an individual taxpayer could claim up to $5,000. The scholarship-granting groups would then give scholarships to assist low-income students to attend private schools.

LB295 is on first round debate in the Legislature.

LB804 would expand the state income tax deduction of 529 College Savings Plan contributions to include private, K-12 tuition. Before the 2017 federal tax rewrite, 529 College Savings Plans could only be used for college tuition/expenses.  LB804 would allow tuition to private K-12 institutions to qualify as a 529 expense – and give tax dollars to private and religious institutions.

NSEA encourages members to contact their senator and urge defeat of both bills.

Third Grade Reading Bill Amended

LB651, the bill introduced in 2017 that would have retained any student who was not reading at grade level by third grade, has been amended by sponsor Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, Elkhorn. Along with Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, Linehan toured classrooms across the state in the past year to get better acquainted with reading programs and teaching needs.

Learn more about the status of LB651 in the column by NSEA Executive Director Maddie Fennell, found here.

Kolterman Defends Retirement Plan

Sen. Mark Kolterman, chair of the Legislature’s Retirement Committee, spoke to reason and the threat was quickly doused.

Kearney Sen. John Lowe pushed for changes to a 20-year-old rule that, during a 60-day session, bans introduction of changes which affect the benefits or funding of a public retirement plan. The rule also bars creation of a new retirement plan in a 60-day session.

Such changes are allowed in a 90-day session.  The longer session offers time for an actuarial study.

Kolterman said the rule, “has worked well. Nebraska has some of the best funded state-administered retirement plans in the country.” The school retirement plan is 87 percent funded and is projected to be 100 percent funded by 2030. The Legislature’s Rules Committee held Lowe’s request to change the rules, ending the that threat to the plan this session.