Education Nebraska Politics Published

Lou Ann Is Lying: How Nebraska’s Senators Disguised a Tax Scheme as “School Choice”

LB 753 is a tax scheme that was pushed through the legislature this year, despite being unpopular with over half of Nebraskans. Support Our Schools is successfully collecting signatures to put LB 753 on the ballot for voters to decide in 2024, and conservative senators are losing their minds over the idea that their constituents should choose instead of them. Some of these senators have taken to local newspapers to publish their opinions as fact. Let’s cut through their bullshit:  

Lou Ann Linehan’s BS in the Daily Nonpareil

BS: “The Opportunity Scholarships Act takes not a single cent from public education. This year, the Legislature increased state funding for our public schools by over $309 million.” “There is a risk that, if they do [repeal LB 753], the Legislature will rethink the significant increase in public school funding passed this year.”

Reality: The dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $100,000 for “donating” (is it really a donation when you get it all back?) to a private school scholarship comes out of the general fund for the state, which is the same pot of money that pays for public schools. So while money given back to individuals or corporations as tax credits might not be taken directly from a public school, it does impact how much is available for public education. Linehan insists that the increase in state funding this year makes opposition to LB 753 moot, but she misses the larger point: a tax credit that benefits the wealthy and funds exclusionary private and religious schools at the expense of taxpayers is a hard sell (and is prohibited by Nebraska’s constitution). She does not help her own case by immediately threatening to defund public schools if voters decide to repeal her bill.

Senator Linehan threatens her constituents and other Nebraskans for disagreeing with her.

Tom Brewer’s BS in the North Platte Telegraph 

BS: “I was proud to cosponsor and support LB 753, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, joining with colleagues from across the state to pass a bill that was long overdue. Many of us may disagree on many other issues, but we came together on this.”

Reality: Versions of the bill failed in the last six legislative cycles because it is unpopular across the state. The major reason for its success this time around is because of funding from the DeVos family through the “school choice” group American Federation for Children (please also note that Senator Linehan’s daughter profits from this bill). Senators Brad von Gillern, Kathleen Kauth, and Rick Holdcroft owe their 2022 election wins in large part to these donations and Democrat defectors Justin Wayne and Mike McDonnell both received money from the group as well. Right-wing national funding made the difference, not bipartisan support. 

BS: “Perhaps more disturbing to me are the suggestions that school choice is not helpful in rural communities like mine. . . . In 2021, 8,500 students in Florida’s 30 rural counties used school choice scholarships. In rural communities, school choice can be used to help children attend schools that already exist, or help entrepreneurs create new schools.” 

Reality: “School choice” is largely unhelpful to rural communities like Brewer’s: his own district of 17,000 ㎡ has exactly one private school in it. The comparison to Florida says nothing about “school choice” in Nebraska. Florida is one of the most urban states in the U.S., with both urban centers and suburban sprawl connecting its rural areas. In mostly-rural Nebraska, small towns are often remote and population loss has forced districts to dissolve or merge with others, resulting in high costs for the state to bus students to their closest school. Entrepreneurs could create schools for these self-described “kid-poor” areas … but it’s more likely they will fund existing private schools – mostly in Omaha and Lincoln – and make bank doing so. 

Tom Brewer’s entire district (in purple) has only one private school. Most are clustered around Omaha and Lincoln, meaning that rural folks are screwed by this bill.

Lou Ann Linehan & Brad von Gillern’s BS in the Omaha World Herald

BS: “Of all the new tax relief measures and education funding programs, the teachers unions are only working to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships tax credit with their petition effort. They refuse to accept that all parents should have a right to choose the education that best meets their child’s needs regardless of their income. With more than $1 million already invested in their repeal effort, most of which is from the national teacher’s union, they are determined to keep students in schools that aren’t the best fit for their success.” 

Reality: Teachers are not opposed to other education bills named in this op-ed because they are measures that help schools (i.e. recruiting and retaining teachers). Teachers are opposed to the Opportunity Scholarships Act because it is a tax scheme that benefits corporations and the wealthy, not students or their families. That “all parents” will have expanded choices is untrue, at least according to LB 753’s estimate that only 5,000 students – of 328,724 in the state – will be able to move from a public to private school on scholarship. Finally, the critique of the teacher’s union spending $1 million to get LB 753 on the ballot is silly when you find out that another $999,520 has been spent fighting that effort, not counting the money the DeVos family spent getting the bill passed in the first place. 

BS: “The new law will give families of students from middle and lower-income families, students who have been bullied, those with exceptional needs, in foster care, from military families and students denied option enrollment in a public school the ability to receive a scholarship to attend the school of their choice.” 

Reality: First priority will not be given to these groups of students, but to “(A) Eligible students who received an education scholarship from a scholarship-granting organization during the previous school year; and (B) The sibling of a student who is receiving an education scholarship, so long as the sibling resides in the same household as such student.” The bill also states that “The Opportunity Scholarships Act shall not be construed . . . as requiring any such qualified school to admit or, once admitted, to continue the enrollment of any student receiving an education scholarship.” Senators might claim that bullied students are a top priority of this bill, but private schools remain under no obligation to serve all students, unlike public schools. LGBTQ students are among the most frequently bullied students, but they will not be helped here: the majority of private schools in Nebraska are Catholic, and the archdiocese of Omaha already announced its plan to bully LGBTQ people in its schools. That bullied queer kids are unlikely to be beneficiaries of private school scholarships is not surprising, given that Linehan, von Gillern, and other LB 753 supporters have also voted repeatedly for anti-LGBTQ legislation. Finally, “those with exceptional needs” may not be accepted by certain private schools due to lack of specific resources. Others, like Pius X, a Catholic school in Lincoln, do accept students with special needs, but only because they utilize special education services provided by Lincoln Public Schools.

Senator Linehan and other supporters of LB 753 claim that this bill will mostly benefit low-income students and students who have been bullied, but for some reason that’s not what they wrote in the bill!

This last point is a clear example of why defunding public schools in order to provide more “school choice” does not work. Whether that “choice” is in the form of scholarship tax credits (as we’re seeing now) or in the form of vouchers and charter schools (as we can expect to see coming from the legislature soon), communities will always need public schools to catch the kids who are not served by privatized education. Public education’s goal is to create continued generations of students who are literate and possess critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, for the benefit of all society. Privatized education’s goal is to create competition between students so that only some possess these skills, while creating a profit motive for people – like our senators – to personally benefit at the expense of some kids.