Nebraska’s low-income families deserve the same chance to choose the best school for their children as their upper-income counterparts, state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha told a Friday morning breakfast in North Platte.
The Revenue Committee chair answered questions about her Legislative Bill 670, which would grant state income tax credits for donations to nonprofit groups that offer low-income scholarships to K-12 parochial or private schools.
People with enough money “can move if we want to. We can pay private tuition if we can afford to,” said Linehan, who also has been pushing with Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte to rewrite and augment state school aid as part of an overall property tax relief package.
“I’ve been fighting very hard to get more money for public schools,” she told about 40 community leaders at NebraskaLand National Bank. “This isn’t about public schools. This is about saving kids.”
The Most Rev. William Dendinger, retired bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Grand Island, also urged support for LB 670 at the breakfast sponsored by the newly formed Invest for Kids Nebraska initiative.
The tax credits go “directly to parents, not churches,” said Dendinger, a former Omaha priest who retired in 2014 after 10 years as Grand Island bishop.
Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses favor Linehan’s bill, which would let Nebraskans write off up to half their annual state income tax bills through donations to programs like Omaha’s 20-year-old Children’s Scholarship Fund.
That nonprofit offered some 1,700 scholarships last year to qualified low-income students attending Catholic, other parochial or private schools throughout northeast Nebraska. Its executive director, Joel Long, is a graduate of Perkins County High School in Grant.
Linehan, a Catholic, stressed that nonprofit scholarship programs benefiting from LB 670 could not support just a single nonpublic school system like North Platte Catholic Schools.
Families of students receiving the scholarships could make no more than twice the federal eligibility level for free or reduced-price school lunches. A pending amendment to LB 670 would limit a group’s average scholarship to three-fourths of statewide per-student spending.
Linehan’s bill advanced from the Revenue Committee last spring on a 5-2 vote, with Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, among those voting in favor.
First-round debate on LB 670 began in May but stalled under a flurry of amendments. Public school supporters cite the legally mandated separation of church and state and hold that such tax credits would devastate public schools.
Linehan acknowledged the challenges, saying “there’s resistance to this (bill) because of all the confusion.” But she noted that the Children’s Scholarship Fund last year had to turn away 750 low-income applicants.
Most families won’t transfer their children to another school unless they must, Linehan said. But “with kids who get lost early in school, in third, fourth, fifth grade, it’s very unlikely they’re going to graduate and be successful. ...
“The vast majority of students in schools today are happy, thriving kids. What we’re looking to do is help students who are struggling.”