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School vouchers fight is Nebraska’s last petition drive of 2024

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School vouchers fight is Nebraska’s last petition drive of 2024

Jul 09, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Aaron Sanderford
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School vouchers fight is Nebraska’s last petition drive of 2024
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Petition circulators with Support Our Schools talk to patrons at the Omaha Public Library near 90th Street and West Dodge Road on Monday, July 8, 2024. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — The last petition circulators eyeing Nebraska’s November ballot are still chasing voters, days after last week’s deadline for other groups to submit signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Support Our Schools has two additional weeks to turn in signatures because of when the Legislature changed the school choice law that the group’s previous petition had sought to repeal. 

The group has until July 17 to collect 61,000 valid signatures from about 5% of registered voters statewide to force a fall vote on repealing the latest iteration of school choice law. 

Tim Royers of Support Our Schools says the group is confident it will collect enough signatures, as well as the legally required baseline from 5% from voters in at least 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. 

Royers said one of the group’s challenges is explaining to voters that the petition on the same issue that they signed last year doesn’t count for this one, that they need to sign again. 

“That honestly has been one of our largest obstacles this time,” Royers said. “Obviously we know who signed last time…. We’ve reached out to them, and we’ve gotten pushback (that they’ve already signed).”

Revised law spurred new petition effort

Sponsoring State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha has acknowledged that she revised the Opportunity Scholarships Act that lawmakers passed in 2023 partly to sidestep a petition drive against it.

School vouchers fight is Nebraska’s last petition drive of 2024
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, left, meets with State Sens. Anna Wishart of Lincoln (center) and Lynne Walz of Fremont. April 9, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

She and other supporters of the 2023 law, including State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, touted the importance of giving parents more options for where to send kids who have struggled in their public schools.

“People aren’t putting themselves in a position of parents who have a child who is not succeeding that is miserable and they have an option here that might work,” Linehan said.

Linehan said the new law addressed many concerns some education advocates raised about Legislative Bill 1402’s predecessor, LB 753. Lawmakers also added new funding for K-12 schools, including $1 billion put toward baseline state aid and special education.

LB 1402 will repeal its predecessor, LB 753, in late October and its $25 million-a-year tax credit for people funding scholarships for needy students attending private K-12 schools. 

LB 1402 instead sets aside $10 million a year in state money to create and fund the state’s first voucher program for students attending private K-12 schools.

Supporters hope to increase the amount appropriated over time and to increase the number of students eligible.

No ‘Decline to Sign’ campaign

Unlike last time, school choice advocates have not organized a “Decline to Sign” campaign. Some pointed to more than $700,000 that Support Our Schools has spent on this petition effort, after having spent $1.4 million on the 2023 push to oppose LB 753.

School vouchers fight is Nebraska’s last petition drive of 2024
Last fall, teachers and other backers of Support Our Schools wheel out boxes of voter-signed petitions seeking to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships Act on the 2024 ballot. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Much of that funding came from state and national teachers unions, many of which have participated in similar campaigns in other states in previous years.

Linehan has said it is tough to compete financially with teachers unions and Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett, who oppose LB 1402. The choice laws have had the backing of U.S. Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., and former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Support Our Schools has said most Nebraskans do not want public dollars spent on private K-12 education. It argues that such programs impact education funding in other states that have created and grown voucher programs.

Voucher program fears

Public school advocates argue that voucher programs in other states started by offering help to kids with limited means and then expanded to cover mainly kids already attending private schools.

Some have described the programs as a way to weaken support for public schools. Others say they are a boon to religious education at a time of declining church attendance.

Karen Kilgarin of the Nebraska State Education Association, which is helping Support Our Schools, said Nebraskans just want an opportunity to let the Legislature know where they stand.

“It shouldn’t be so hard to let people vote, especially when they’ve already made it clear they want to vote on this issue,” she said.

Public interest in program

Linehan said some parents don’t have time to wait for public school systems to improve. They need help now for their kids, she said, and they lack the financial flexibility to send their children to private schools

More than 2,100 students’ families have signed up for the initial program through the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization for the 2024-25 school year.

Lauren Gage of Opportunity Scholarships of Nebraska said her group has received more than $2.15 million in pledges for scholarship funds and calls from parents seeking more information.

“Contributions have been picking up this summer,” Gage said. “And we expect many more taxpayers taking advantage of the tax credit as LB 753 sunsets.”