In early 2023, the Nebraska legislature passed LB753, which created a new private school tax-credit voucher program. The bill allows a dollar-for-dollar tax credit to individuals and corporations that donate to a scholarship granting organization (SGO), which would issue the vouchers to families to pay for private school. Eligibility requirements are broad, allowing, for example, any child entering either kindergarten or 9th grade at a private school, or any student who has spent at least one semester in a public school to apply for a voucher. The bill would divert up to $25 million annually from the state, but that figure could go up to $100 million.

The bill includes a standard “hands off clause,” which prevents the state from exercising any authority over the school and how it operates.  It’s basically a license to discriminate.

Shortly after the bill was passed, public school supporters launched a referendum petition drive to put repeal of the new law on the November 2024 ballot. In fewer than 90 days, the repeal campaign gathered nearly double the number of required signatures from across the state. The effort was led by Support Our Schools Nebraska, a coalition that includes, among others, the Nebraska State Education Association, OpenSky Policy Institute, Parent-Teacher Association of Nebraska, Stand for Schools, League of Women Voters of Nebraska, Omaha NAACP, ARC of Nebraska, Nebraska Farmers Union, and the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table.

In Nebraska, 84% of private schools are religiously affiliated. Many, if not most of these schools are legally permitted to discriminate against applicants based on their gender orientation, religious affiliation, or other characteristics. The Nebraska OpenSky Policy Institute has estimated that state aid distributed to public schools could decrease by almost $12 million in response to the new voucher program.

Forces aligned against the repeal include the usual suspects, like the American Federation for Children, founded by anti-public-education zealot Betsy DeVos, which donated $583,000 along with $103,000 of in-kind services to the pro-voucher effort, on top of money DeVos spent to influence Nebraska state senate races in the last cycle. The Nebraska Catholic Conference, whose coffers stand to gain from LB753, has also thrown its weight and reach behind the anti-public education side. Jeremy Ekeler left his job as associate director of education policy at the Conference in November to become the executive director of Opportunity Scholarships of Nebraska, a state-approved scholarship granting organization helping to implement LB753. They’re not only working to defeat the ballot measure, they’re trying to keep it off the ballot entirely, following a playbook the right has used to subvert a variety of citizen-led, petition-driven initiatives around the country.

As we have pointed out before and as the chart above illustrates, vouchers bleed public school districts of needed funds, allow for discrimination, lower educational standards (by not necessarily having many), and lead to resegregation.

As if that weren’t enough, they turn out to be budget busters for states.

In the Public Interest will keep an eye on this fight because it may be the clearest indication that, while conservative politicians have thrown their support to various schemes that divert public funds from public schools, the public opposes these efforts and will show up at the polls to make their feelings felt.

Sources for Table:

New Hampshire: Rayno, Garry. (2024, February 8). “Expansion of EFA Program Approved But Universal Eligibility Killed.”  InDepthNH.

Arizona: Gomez, Gloria Rebecca. (2023, June 1). “Arizona school voucher program growth explodes to over $900 million for the upcoming school year.”  AZ Mirror.

Ohio: If all applicants are approved. Balmert, Jessie. (2024, February 12). “As Ohio’s private school vouchers swell, who is benefitting?” Cincinnati Enquirer.

North Carolina: Public Funds, Public Schools. (2023, September 19)  “The True Cost of Private School Voucher Programs.”

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