Friday, April 12, 2024

NE: Protecting Vouchers From Democracy

If you want to see how little advocates really believe in the popularity of school vouchers, just cast your eyes out to Nebraska.

In May of 2023, Nebraska’s Governor Jim Pillen signed into law LB 753, creating tax credit vouchers for subsidizing private schools.

The concept has been floated in Nebraska before, notably turning up more than once in 2022’s session. In 2023, it finally progressed through the legislature. But NSEA political action director Brian Nikkelson told the Nebraska Examiner that the public did not support the vouchers, and if the bill was passed, there would be a petition drive to force the bill to go on the ballot for voters to decide.

And so there was. It was a heck of a battle, with the pro-voucher forces have attracting a mountain of money, some of it from outside the state. Paul Hammel at the Nebraska Examiner reported that big money contributors include C.L. Werner, an Omaha-based trucking company executive ($100,000), Tom Peed and his son Shawn of a Lincoln publishing company ($75,000 each), and former Nebraska governor U.S. Senator Pete Ricketts ($25,000). Governor Pillen himself has contributed $100,000 to the campaign to save vouchers from a vote.

At the same time, Hammel reports, the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy group founded by Betsy DeVos, has contributed $103,000 in in-kind services and $583,000 in cash to the campaign.

It didn't matter. Support Our Schools needed 60,000 signatures to force a referendum. They ended up with about twice that number (that's roughly 10% of all eligible voters in the state). So this November, the voters of Nebraska were supposed to have their say. So you'd expect that voucher fans, who keep telling us how much everyone loves vouchers, would just sit back, secure in the knowledge that their program would win the referendum handily.

Well, no.

Instead, legislators cooked up LB 1402. This bill proposes to repeal the Opportunity Scholarships that were created under LB 753, and then to replace them with a new version of Opportunity Scholarships. This version would be an education savings account (ESA) style super-voucher that hands over taxpayer money to send a student to a private or parochial school. It's more sketchy than last year's bill because it appropriates state funds (rather than tax-credited contributions) to pay for the vouchers.

But mostly what it does it render the petition drive moot, because it repeals the version of vouchers that the public was going to vote on. 

The new bill comes courtesy of State Senator Ann Linehan. Back in January, Linehan tried to get the Secretary of State to throw the referendum off the ballot. At that time, reported Aaron Sanderford at the Nebraska Examiner (which has been all over this story), Linehan said choicers were "prepared to explore their legal options" is the Secretary of State said the referendum would stay. Apparently this was one of the options they came up with.

In the fine tradition of vouchers, this bill was proposed out of a deep and abiding concern for the poor children trapped in failing schools. This is the origin story of every voucher program, but at this point we know how this movie ends-- with voucher programs expanded into budget busting entitlements that include wealthy families who were already in private school. If you believe that the voucher bill is all about rescuing poor kids and that will be the end of it, I have a bridge over some swampland to sell you.

The new bill has advanced and will be up for a final vote on April 18, the last day of the session, so if you are in Nebraska and you would like to see the legislators stop trying to rescue the vouchers from democracy, place some phone calls between now and then. Should the bill pass, the governor will sign it.

That means the options would be A) challenge the bill's legality on that whole "taxpayer money used for private schools" thing and/or B) circulate another petition and put the new bill on November's ballot. Of course, that will be a little confusing since Nebraska low-information voters may think, "Didn't we just do this?" Especially since the new voucher program has the same name as the old voucher program, which I'm sure just reflects a commitment to "opportunity" and not one more tactic to try to thwart those pesky democratic processes. 

Nebraska's choicers, and their backers from across the nation, will keep plugging. Vouchers, after all, must be protected from democracy at all costs. 

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