Signatures Collected to End Nebraska’s New School Choice Law – Nebraska Examiner

LINCOLN — The union representing Nebraska’s K-12 public school teachers and its supporters can now gather signatures aimed at stopping a new state law that helps some students pay for private education.

Members of the Nebraska State Education Association march from their annual meeting in downtown Lincoln to the Nebraska State Capitol. April 20, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Bob Evnen freed the tongue that petition gatherers are using to target much of House Bill 1402, the latest version of a scholarship or voucher program for students attending K-12 private schools.

The petition seeks to “repeal section 1 of LB 1402…which provides $10 million annually for financial grants to eligible students wishing to attend an eligible private elementary or secondary school in Nebraska.”

Support Our Schools had no immediate comment on whether the petition text had been approved. The group has until mid-July to collect about 61,000 signatures from about 5% of registered voters statewide, plus 5% of voters in at least 38 counties.

Its leaders argued that people who want to spend public dollars on private education revamped the first version of the scholarship program, passed last year, to derail Support Our Schools’ first effort to let voters decide on the issue.

Direct credit of $10 million

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha and other supporters of the scholarship program also had no immediate comment on the language, other than that Linehan said the state Department of Education approves which schools are eligible.

Gov. Jim Pillen (left) signs House Bill 1402 from state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, a “school choice” replacement measure for a 2023 bill. (Courtesy of office of Governor Jim Pillen)

The scholarship program began as a privately funded effort supported by a dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $25 million per year for donors. The program was transformed under LB 1402 into a direct appropriation of $10 million to be distributed to the Office of the State Treasurer.

Some have questioned the constitutionality of this credit and the existence of a sufficient distance between state money and private schools. Others questioned whether a ballot measure could repeal a legislative appropriation.

Advocates for the program, including Linehan and State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, said families whose children attend public schools that don’t work well for them need options and can’t afford to ‘wait years for school systems to change.

Critics of school choice say many other states that started with small scholarship programs like this have later expanded to expensive voucher programs that divert taxpayer dollars from other priorities, including including public schools.