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School choice bill sparks passionate debate in Lincoln

Posted at 6:51 PM, Jan 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 20:32:06-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — Nebraska is currently one of the few states that do not give any financial benefit to those that support private schools.

A bill in the legislature aims to change that, a bit.

LB 364 gives tax credits to those that donate to private school scholarships, while some call it common sense, opponents say it’s the state subsidizing private school education.

People like Antonio Chavez say he was lucky to grow up in Columbus and attend Scotus Central Catholic, but he says not all of those like him are that fortunate.

“People like me, people of color and sometimes of people of poverty are not able to afford them and they just send them to a public school. There are parents that are raised Catholic, they want their kids raised Catholic, they know they cannot afford the amount of tuition that they give,” says Chavez.

He supports the Opportunity Scholarships Act, sponsored by Senator Lou Ann Linehan, which gives Nebraskans tax credits if they donate scholarships to private schools.

That money that goes to those scholarships would only apply to low income students, as they must qualify for free or reduced lunch to get the scholarship.

“This is about children and giving them what they need to receive educationally,” says Clarice Jackson, a supporter of the bill.

Two representatives from the CUES school system, which includes Holy Name, All Saints and Sacred Heart in Omaha.

Over 90 percent of the students in the system, are on free or reduced lunch already.

“Giving these parents who have been red-lined, who at of no choice of their own have been put into in the poverty that they still exist in today. With this bill you can help change that,” says CUES President, Fr. Dave Korth.

Rick Bettker, a board member for CUES, says their survival is not set in stone and the bill can ensure that it is.

"Our long term survial is not set in stone,” says Rick Bettker, a member of the Board of Governors for CUES.

"If our families could bring in scholarship money we could secure our future."

The estimate is the state would spend around $10 million on these tax credits in year one. Norfolk School Board President Sandy Wolfe worries where the money will eventually come from.

“Think carefully before you support LB 364 because that money is probably going to come from our public schools,” says Wolfe.

Renee Fry with Open Sky Policy says the tax credits are abnormally generous and would rather spend the money elsewhere.

“Honestly if we really want to help low income kids, I would recommend that we be spending more in public schools to help those 325,000 students and really spend more where there’s concentrated poverty,” says Fry.

There's also concern that some private schools discriminate against LGBTQ students and they take issue with calling this a school choice bill.

“The real choice being provided here is for the wealthy to have more choices on how they can avoid paying taxes or essential public services that they don’t intend on using,” says Jared Wagenknecht, an opponent of the bill.

Two years ago, a similar bill got out of committee, but was then filibustered on the legislative floor and eventually failed.

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