Debate over school choice in Nebraska

Posted at 7:24 AM, Feb 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-22 12:34:59-05

Unbeknownst to Nebraska students, a fiery and impassioned debate surrounds them.

“When we talk about school choice, we're just talking about the option and the opportunity for all parents - regardless of income or zip code - to choose the best school for their children,” said Clarice Jackson with L.E.A.R.N. Coalition.

School choice includes public, private, parochial and charters schools.

But it's the word “charter” that has some parents and educators at odds.

“We're not anti-public school. We're anti-failing schools,” Jackson said.

Jackson believes charter schools, which use public funds but are run by an independent board, are an alternative option for parents unhappy with a low-performing school.

"Charter schools have been around for 26 years now and they have a record of improving student outcomes, particularly in urban areas,” said Katie Linehan with Educate Nebraska

Experts say third grade is a make-it or break-it year when it comes to reading and developing a strong learning foundation.

“One of our schools, Howard Kennedy is currently modeled after a charter school model,” said Lacey Merica, the board president for Omaha Public Schools.

But Kennedy is one of three Omaha Public Schools that received third grade NESA reading scores below state standards.

According to Merica, the school added reading coaches and made classes smaller to give students extra help. 

Charter school supporters say parents should have a choice - and parochial schools agree.

"I think education is a right,” said Patrick Slattery, superintendent of Catholic Schools of Omaha.

Slattery said the demand for choice is high.

In just two years, 1,000 new students enrolled in Omaha Catholic schools.

When Maximo Gaytan enrolled into the system a few years ago he struggled with the English language.

Today, he's a freshman at Mount Michael Benedictine High School where he enjoys public speaking.

His parents don't regret the decision.

"I believe it's worth it. You have to obviously pay but it's worth it.,” said Alan Diaz, Gayten's father.

That's the crux of the argument - critics say: Nebraska families already enjoy choice whether private school or statewide open enrollment.

"The question I want policy makers in Nebraska asking not if charter schools good or bad - the question that we need to ask here: is will charter schools help us deal with the educational challenges we face here in Nebraska?  said Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director of Stand for Schools.

Critics say, if the alternative option isn't working - then is it a real solution?

State senator Lou Ann Linehan introduced LB 608 and co-signed on Sen. Tyson Larson's LB 630, which allows charter schools.  

Catholic schools support LB 295 because officials say it doesn't touch public school funding.

It provides tax credit for donations made to private school scholarships for low to middle income students.

Hunter-Pirtle says otherwise.

"The difference between a tax deduction and a dollar-for-dollar tax credit is that the tax credit diminishes the state's general fund,” said  Hunter-Pirtle.

From a leadership level here in Lincoln, we feel that we've entered into an environment that doesn't support public schools, Hunter-Pirtle said.

It's widely known Gov. Pete Ricketts supports school choice.

Both sides argue their stance is based on kids first, not adults.

But whether it comes to Nebraska, depends on what will happen at the state capital.