Make a donation, get a state income tax credit and help fund private school scholarships.
That’s the gist of a bill that State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha has introduced in the Nebraska Legislature. If approved, the measure would add Nebraska to the 14 states that offer what are known as scholarship tax credit programs.
Krist introduced a similar measure in 2013, which carried over into last year. It did not reach the floor of the Legislature. In fact, he has had some kind of scholarship credit bill – all unsuccessful – in the system since 2011.
But Krist said he thinks this one stands a better chance.
He said he’s “very enthused” because he has diversified his base of support for the bill, with a number of organizations and businesspeople already lining up behind the effort.
He said he was not ready to provide a full list, but Sheri Rickert, the Nebraska Catholic Conference’s policy director and general counsel, said the organization is “fully supportive” of the bill.
In addition to the usual estimate of what a bill would cost taxpayers if approved, he plans to present study findings showing the savings it would produce.
Such a program, he said, might have helped keep open some of the Catholic grade schools that the Omaha Archdiocese has had to close in recent years by providing an alternative funding source.
He said he believes those closures likely resulted in some students going to public schools, although it’s not clear how many made that switch as opposed to choosing other private schools.
But Krist said every student added to public school rolls adds to the number the state must fund. Currently, total state aid to schools is pushing $1 billion.
“It’s tough to look at what we’re doing and not look for ways to hold down that bottom line,” he said.
The measure comes at a time when interest in various school choice options appears to be building in Nebraska, although just how much isn’t clear.
Former State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh pushed unsuccessfully for charter schools the past two sessions. Last year’s measure would have allowed the creation of independent public schools only in Omaha, operated under a compact granted by the State Board of Education.
Gov. Pete Ricketts has expressed warmer views on charter schools than his predecessor. So far, however, his only comments on education have focused on improving career and vocational education. A spokesman said Ricketts won’t have anything further to say until his State of the State address later this month.
It’s not clear whether other school-choice-related bills will be offered. Bills can be introduced through Jan. 21.
Omaha Public Schools board members, however, have been working on a draft resolution supporting the concept of locally contracted “opportunity schools,” funded through local districts and operating under strict guidelines with oversight by a local school board.
Nebraska is one of eight states that don’t allow charter schools, which are independent, taxpayer-funded schools typically run privately.
Clarice Jackson, co-founder of the Liberate, Educate and Reform Nebraska, or LEARN, Coalition, said the grass-roots, parent-centered group in northeast Omaha has been working to raise awareness about school choice, specifically charters, but won’t seek to introduce legislation.
She said the group made a statement at the last OPS board meeting supporting the notion of “opportunity schools” but specified that they should have an authorizing body separate from the school board.
Jackson said the coalition had no comment on the scholarship tax credit proposal.
The group will be among those planning some 58 events across Nebraska during National School Choice Week, Jan. 25 to 31. Nationally, some 10,000 independent events are expected.
Because so many other states already have charters, the focus of choice efforts nationally this year will be on tuition scholarships, vouchers and tax credits, said Michelle Exstrom, education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Provisions in Krist’s bill are similar to such scholarship programs in other states. Individuals, corporations and estates or trusts that contribute to scholarship-granting organizations would be eligible for a state tax credit equal to 60 percent of the total contributions made that tax year. The percentage is limited because taxpayers typically are eligible for a deduction on federal tax returns, as well. Taxpayers cannot designate the contribution for specific students. The scholarships would be available for eligible students to attend qualified private schools.
The total amount of credits that could be granted statewide in the first year would be limited to $10 million. That amount would increase in following years if contributions approach the cap.
In Iowa, which has had a scholarship tax program since 2006, total contributions for 2014 were capped at $12 million.
Nancy Fulton, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the organization typically has opposed such scholarship programs, which resemble private school vouchers.
The organization adopted a resolution opposing tax credits and vouchers, saying that they pose a threat to public education and that tax dollars collected for education should be used for public schools.
Fulton said Nebraskans already have choice, from focus schools in Lincoln to option enrollment in rural districts.