Nebraska Lawmakers Propose Dozens Of New Education Bills As Charters, Vouchers Gain Momentum
Nebraska Lawmakers Propose Dozens of New Education Bills as Charters, Vouchers Gain Momentum
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Lawmakers in Nebraska have ensured that the state legislature will face a challenging session in 2017 by introducing numerous proposals for education reform. These proposals include bills that would allow the establishment of charter schools, create a voucher system for students in underperforming public schools, and revamp school accountability.
The charter school bill, which was introduced by Republican Senator Tyson Larson and co-sponsored by freshman Senator Lou Ann Linehan, has reignited a debate over publicly funded, privately run schools. Currently, charter schools are permitted in 43 other states but have failed to gain traction in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan unicameral legislature in the past. However, supporters are hopeful that recent political shifts, both statewide and nationally, and the nomination of charter and voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education will provide fresh momentum for these efforts. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won Nebraska with 58.7 percent of the vote.
Linehan believes that the power shift on the state education committee, of which she is a member, contributes to her optimism. The committee, which was traditionally left-leaning, became evenly split after Republicans gained seats in the legislature. The committee’s new chairman, Republican Senator Mike Groene, has expressed support for accountability and suggested that he would consider measures to allow vouchers or charters.
The bill introduced by Linehan and Larson aims to establish the Independent Public School Authorizing and Accountability Commission, which would grant five-year renewable charter compacts to qualified applicants and provide oversight. The proposal would allow nonprofit charter schools to operate in school districts with at least one school rated at the lowest performance level. It also includes a provision to help new charters recruit certified teachers. Public school teachers would be able to take a leave of absence for up to four years to teach at a charter school and retain their previously earned benefits upon returning to their district job.
Linehan’s daughter, Katie Linehan, leads the pro-charter organization Educate Nebraska. She believes that school choice is important for empowering families and ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that charter schools and vouchers would deplete public school funds and place a further burden on school districts, especially as the state is already facing a budget deficit.
Ann Hunter-Pirtle, a graduate of public schools in Lincoln and founder of the public schools advocacy organization Stand for Schools, opposes the charter and voucher proposals. She argues that these initiatives would particularly harm rural districts, as they would have to release their already limited tax dollars and potentially risk closure. Hunter-Pirtle also highlights the risks associated with putting public tax dollars into private hands, citing examples such as waste, fraud, and abuse witnessed in Ohio, the failure of vouchers to deliver results in Milwaukee, and the challenges faced by the Detroit school system, partly due to DeVos’s involvement. She believes that these risks are not worth taking when public schools are already performing well and school boards are effectively overseeing them.
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The education committee has received numerous education measures introduced by lawmakers, including the following:
LB 608, introduced by Linehan, aims to establish the Parental Choice Scholarship Program Act. This act would allow state and local funding to follow students from underperforming public schools to private schools. If a district’s students opt to transfer to a private school, the district would pay either 75 percent of the per-pupil cost or cover the tuition, books, and uniforms at the private school, whichever is lower. Any unused funding would go towards a property tax relief fund.
LB 118, introduced by Republican Sen. Robert Hilkemann, proposes the creation of education savings accounts. These accounts would enable students and families to receive contributions of up to $2,000 per year from individuals and businesses for education-related expenses. In return for their donations, individuals and businesses would receive tax incentives.
Representatives from the Nebraska State Board of Education and the Omaha Public Schools Board of Education have stated that they will refrain from commenting on the proposals until they have thoroughly reviewed them. Both boards are scheduled to meet on Monday.
The Nebraska State Education Association, which represents 28,000 public school teachers and other professionals, has chosen not to provide any comment.
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