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Public money for private school tuition bill advances


LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska could join 48 other states in offering public money for private school tuition under a bill advanced by the state Legislature on Wednesday, even as some lawmakers expressed concern about taxpayer dollars going to private schools allowed to turn away students based on religious tenets.

Rather than appropriating taxpayer dollars directly toward private school vouchers, the bill would allow businesses and individuals to donate a portion of their owed state income tax to be used for scholarships covering private school tuition.

Because the donations would offer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for up to $100,000 per year, it's likely to be utilized most heavily by businesses and the wealthy. The bill allocates $25 million annually to cover such donations — money that otherwise would have gone into the state's general revenue fund.

The bill, introduced by Omaha Sen. Lou Ann Linehan at the request of Republican Gov. Jim Pillen, sets up a priority system for the scholarships, with top priority going to the lowest income students. After the first year the system goes into effect, top priority goes to those students who received a scholarship the previous year and to any siblings who live with them. Other tiers are designated for students who are being bullied in their current school, foster kids and students with a parent serving active military duty or had a parent killed in the line of duty.

Linehan stressed that her bill does not take funding from public schools, which are pegged to receive a $1 billion boost from another bill backed by Pillen this year. She touted the measure as helping underprivileged students who have few other choices when they find themselves in an underperforming or toxic public school environment.

“This bill gives the choice to parents and student to attend the school that meets their need," Linehan said.

The bill must survive two more rounds of debate to get to Pillen's desk. Linehan has tried for years to pass a version of the bill, but this year garnered 31 cosponsors out of 49 senators in Nebraska's unique one-house Legislature. That included two Democratic lawmakers, Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. McKinney and Wayne, whose Omaha districts include inner-city schools, cited the need for parents in their districts to have choices to send their kids to better schools.

Republicans around the country have been pushing such publicly-funded private school voucher systems for years and have seen recent success. Lawmakers in Iowa approved a similar law earlier this year, and at least a dozen states — including Kansas and Missouri that border Nebraska — are considering similar legislation.

Opponents of the Nebraska bill have balked at using diverted tax dollars to fund tuition to private schools, many of which overtly reject members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Omaha Sen. John Fredrickson, the first openly gay man elected to the Nebraska Legislature, said he fears his son would not be accepted into religious-based private schools because he has two dads.

“It's also not clear to me if my husband and I would be allowed on campus to attend sports game or school activities,” Fredrickson said. He asked a lobbyist representing Nebraska's Catholic schools on Tuesday whether he, his husband and son would be welcomed at Catholic schools.

“He said he'll have to get back to me,” Fredrickson said. “This isn't school choice. This is distilling different groups out of opportunities.”

Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, questioned the motive of the bill, saying it's “about giving money to rich people using a few underprivileged people as some nice marketing.”

She introduced an amendment that would ban private schools benefiting from the vouchers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or special education status. It failed Wednesday on a largely 31-15 party-line vote. Linehan's bill advanced on a 31-12 vote, with several lawmakers not voting.