Several education bills have advanced through the Nebraska Legislature since its first session began almost 14 weeks ago.
Both Norfolk Public Schools and some of the city’s parochial schools have been monitoring and advocating for various legislation that would critically affect future education in Northeast Nebraska.
One of the bills that would affect every school in Norfolk is Legislative Bill 364, the Opportunity Scholarship Act. It would give a tax credit to people who donate money for student scholarships to private and parochial schools.
Advocates for the bill believe it will give students more school choice by allowing more families to be able to afford private and parochial schools.
The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, would allow individuals and corporations to receive a nonrefundable tax credit equal to the amount they give to a scholarship-granting organization.
The tax breaks would be capped at $10 million during the first year. But within 10 years, the amount could grow to almost $100 million depending on demand.
Christ Lutheran School in Norfolk has always supported school choice so more students would be able to afford the education they want, said Drew Urban, school principal.
“It would not just help us, but it would help Lutheran High Northeast, St. Paul, Norfolk Catholic. I think a lot of people like to choose,” Urban said. “They choose us because they like the small class sizes. But the cost is an issue at times, even though we try to make it affordable.”
The cost of a year at Christ Lutheran is $6,700, but many take advantage of the school’s tuition assistance fund, which cuts the price in half as long as the family has a financial need and there is classroom space.
Tammy Day, Norfolk Public Schools board vice president, said LB364 would divert public tax dollars away from public schools and other sectors like public safety and health care.
As part of the board’s government relations committee, Day submitted a letter of opposition from the district earlier this year.
“Let’s be honest, taxpayers will make up that shortage in some way or they will have to cut funding, and neither of those are great options in my opinion,” Day said. “... Nebraska is one of the very few states that does not have charter school voucher tax credit movement because public schools in Nebraska work — people are happy with them.”
Some opponents of the bill, such as the Nebraska State Education Association, said it contributes to unequal education because private and parochial schools can choose who is enrolled.
Urban said while Christ Lutheran does reject some applications, it’s usually because the school doesn’t have the resources to teach the students because they need special accommodations to support academic, language or behavior needs.
Public school funding
State aid for Nebraska public schools is the focus of several bills in the Legislature.
Legislative Bill 323, which was introduced by Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, entered its second round of review in late February. It would make adjustments to the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act (TEEOSA), the state’s current public school finance formula, after problems caused by COVID-19.
NPS Superintendent Jami Jo Thompson sent in a letter of support for the bill because it would help ease some of the unintentional financial issues that were caused by extended school closures.
Thompson said the components of the formula that would be adjusted are driven by student attendance or previous years' expenditures.
“It is difficult to determine the total financial impact this would have on NPS, but we estimate that it could be near a half-million dollars,” she said. “We appreciate Senator Walz's interest in helping eliminate these unintended reductions in state aid.”
Thompson also recently met with Senator Mike Flood of Norfolk to discuss Legislative Bill 408, which would place a 3% cap on property tax growth.
This would result in a decrease in funding for equalized school districts because actual property tax valuations would be used when calculating state aid, according to the NPS Board of Education.
“LB408 would not allow equalized school district budgets to grow by 3%. It would actually force us to reduce our budgets significantly,” Thompson said. “This is because LB408 limits property tax receipts to 3%, but TEEOSA includes all of a school's property tax valuation as a resource — even if it is above 3% — and we are not allowed to get that money.”
Classroom expenses, financial review
One bill that looks attractive on the surface but might actually be a burden to schools is Legislative Resolution 21CA, introduced by Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, Day said.
The resolution would be a constitutional amendment to require the state to pay all classroom expenses in public elementary and secondary schools.
While this sounds like a benefit, the language of the bill doesn’t identify a funding source and also transfers more control to the state, she said. It would either require new or higher taxes or major cuts to K-12 education, according to the NPS board.
Day said the district instead supports a bill that should have been created a long time ago to help control public school finances. Legislative Bill 132, introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, would create a school financing review commission.
The group would conduct a review of the financing of public schools to try to find alternative funding sources besides a heavy reliance on property taxes.
“It would give us a chance to take a look at school funding in total to find the best way forward — rather than every legislative session doing this Band-Aid approach,” Day said. “We are hopeful this would be passed."
Day said she encourages Northeast Nebraskans to keep informed on current education legislative bills to ensure as many voices are heard as possible. Residents may visit www.nebraskalegislature.gov to view bill summaries and watch the Legislature’s live discussions as decisions are made.