The school choice debate in Nebraska remained contentious for the fifth straight year as lawmakers approached voting on LB364, a bill that would give a tax credit per dollar for donations to private school scholarship funds. The bill fell five votes short of the thirty-three needed to force a vote, which will effectively take the matter off the table for the rest of the year.
Nebraska is one of a few states that currently provide no financial benefit for supporters of private schools. Proponents say the bill would provide immense benefit to low-income families by providing better educational opportunities.
Senator Justin Wayne (D) was among the strongest voices offering sharp criticism towards opponents of the bill. Last year, Wayne called legislative opponents to the carpet, challenging them to transfer their own children from private school into the public schools he represents. He reminded his fellow senators of that challenge this week, asking if any had accepted. With no responses offered, Wayne pointed out the inconsistency of so many senators opposing school choice while sending their own children to private schools.
Nebraska has some of the most significant educational gaps between demographics in the nation. Schools have been failing for generations in some areas, with certain neighborhood schools producing less than 20% of students proficient in math and reading. This reality leaves families in these areas desperate for options, which this bill provides according to proponents like Sen. Wayne. He argued that families in the communities he represents could not wait any longer:
My community can’t wait anymore. If you say we have to wait to turn it around, then we’re going to have a conversation where you can look in the camera and I’m going to ask the question…Explain to my community why they have to wait 1, 2, 5 more years. It’s unacceptable.
Wayne also pointed out the inconsistencies in logic regarding educational rights in light of how opponents viewed other issues they consider ‘rights’: “Let’s follow the logic all the way through. If you believe healthcare is a right, and you don’t limit the choice of Medicare and Medicaid patients…Then why are you limiting the educational right of a parent for their kid?”
The senator pulled no punches in pointing out the hypocrisy of those colleagues who might have the “urge” to speak into minority or underserved communities while simultaneously denying them the agency to choose their own educational path:
McKinney & I represent about 70% of African Americans in this state. Statistically, you cannot say public education is doing us a service…When you get that urge to stand up and defend my community…that’s the savior complex, that’s the nice racism that we’re speaking about.
The bill would not redirect any funding out of public education funds. While school choice advocates argue that passing the bill would be common sense, opponents say it would amount to the state subsidizing private school education. Some opponents went so far as to argue in favor of inflating public school funding even further, regardless of the fact that Nebraska’s private school tuition averages are some of the lowest in the nation. Based on current expenditure and tuition data, this bill could provide high-quality education to over three students in private schools for the amount one student costs in public schools. Nebraska’s private school tuition average is $3,797, while public school per-pupil cost is $14,377.08.
With the bill not receiving the needed votes to proceed, proponents claim that underserved communities in Nebraska will be forced into failing systems while school choice remains the privilege of those who can afford it.
Sen. Wayne encapsulated his frustrations with his colleagues:
Come Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’m going to get all sorts of text messages and Facebook posts about, ‘A right delayed is a right denied’—that’s the quote I always see by many people in this body. Well, if you believe education is a human right, then why are you denying my community the opportunity to exercise the choice to (go to) a better school?