Nebraska school choice advocates applaud bill’s advancement

May 23, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Private school administrators, parents and advocates say Nebraska lawmakers are off to a good start on school choice legislation, but they’ll keep pushing state senators to pass a bill next year.

Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said a legislative committee’s decision late last week to endorse a bill that would give tax credits to individuals and businesses that donate to private school scholarship funds marks a “historic and significant moment” for school choice in the state. The committee’s action sets the bill up to be one of the first issues lawmakers debate when they return in January.

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“Lawmakers are telling Nebraskans ‘we hear you,’ when it comes to school choice for low- and middle-income families,” Venzor said.

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith, the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the committee that advanced it, said he can’t predict what will happen with the bill next year but said lawmakers need to discuss it. As amended by the committee, it would allow up to $2 million in tax credits in its first year, including $10,000 credits for married couples and $150,000 breaks for corporations. Scholarships would have to benefit families making up to twice the federal limit for reduced lunch — meaning a family of five could make almost $106,500 and still qualify.

Seventeen states, including three bordering Nebraska, already offer similar tax credits for private school donations. Critics contend these are a back-door way of subsidizing private schools, and the national School Superintendents Association released a report this month showing wealthy donors in about half of those states are able to profit from their gifts through dollar-for-dollar state tax credits and federal tax deductions for charitable donations.

Lincoln mother Nichole Hope relies on subsidies from her Catholic diocese to help send her four school-age children to Catholic school. Without the subsidies, she’d pay about $10,000 a year for her children’s tuition, fees, books and activities; with them, she pays about $3,500. She said the tax credits could encourage more donations so parents like her can fulfill religious obligations and send their children to parochial schools.

Omaha Catholic schools have seen more than 1,000 new students in the past few years and don’t have enough financial aid to go around, said Patrick Slattery, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha. This limits enrollment to children from families that can afford tuition, he said.

“Wealth and luck should not be the determining factors in who gets a choice,” Slattery said.

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