Deciding the amount of state financial aid going to Nebraska's public schools will always be a compromise between urban and rural interests.
We emphasize the word “always.”
Nebraska's urban-rural struggle over fairness in distributing school aid repeats itself every two years at the Legislature. That's when lawmakers, whether from big cities or small towns, rightly stand up for their districts in deciding on the biennial budget.
The problem this week was that for a long while, the prospects for compromise at the State Capitol were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the Legislature experienced a near-meltdown on the issue Monday.
The two sides stood far apart, tempers flared, accusations were hurled, discussion bogged down amid an avalanche of amendments, lobbyists leaned heavily on individual senators, and no single proposal offered a clear way to bridge the divide.
Enter Speaker Greg Adams and Sen. Kate Sullivan, chairwoman of the Education Committee. They showed capable leadership by meeting with a group of senators who spanned the spectrum of opinion, including some fervent champions on each side of the issue. The result — after intensive negotiation — was a compromise that on Thursday passed first-round approval on a 42-0 vote.
The compromise legislation would provide $908 million in aid the first year and $940 million the second — numbers that stay within the all-important threshold needed to make the overall state budget numbers work. Current law calls for a 7 percent increase over the two fiscal years; this agreement would hold that to a more manageable 5 percent.
The compromise restores the so-called averaging adjustment, a change sought by larger districts. The bill also retains changes that would give aid to more districts for employing better-educated teachers and holding more days of school.
That was only one Round 1, however. Within a week or so, figures will become available for the projected amount of aid each Nebraska school district would receive under the legislation. As one senator noted on Thursday, individual school districts will be watching those aid projections closely, and if the numbers don't suit them, senators will be hearing about it.
This is where leadership from Nebraska lawmakers needs to come in. In the wake of a difficult compromise like this, senators need the strength to tell constituents — and school district lobbyists — that in the real world, a partial loaf is often the best that can be achieved. The Legislature, after all, by definition has to serve both rural and urban interests, reconciling differences as best as possible.
The school aid debate this week provides additional lessons:
>> Lawmakers should be wary of overpromising. Some of the rhetoric this week about “fixing” the state aid formula carried the danger of inflating school districts' hopes beyond what's achievable.
>> Predictability in school funding certainly is desirable, but school aid doesn't come with a permanent, guaranteed increase each year. On the contrary, the aid level has to be adjusted every two years depending on the revenues available and competition from other spending priorities.
>> It's fine for senators to draw on information and analysis from lobbyists, but if the process is to move forward, lawmakers have to be ready to assert their independence.
The aid debate offered striking examples of the burdens facing Nebraska's urban and rural school districts. On the urban side, lawmakers described dramatic school-age population increases facing districts in cities such as Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island.
At the same time, it was noted that an economic analysis from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Bureau of Business Research says that farm income in Nebraska is projected to fall in 2014 to $4.2 billion, down from $5.2 billion in 2012 and an all-time high of $7.5 billion in 2011.
With facts like those, it's clear why the struggle over school aid will continue in Nebraska with each new budget cycle. And why, in the end, reasonable compromise will always be needed.