LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts drew fire from the state teachers union Wednesday over his explanation for not recognizing “I Love Public Schools Day” last week.
At a Monday press conference, the governor said he had not signed a proclamation because “typically our proclamations on education focus on educational excellence and choice.”
Ricketts commented shortly after proclaiming the current week as “Nebraska School Choice Week” and extolling his initiatives to put more state money toward Nebraska’s private and parochial schools. School choice week is observed nationally to promote alternatives to traditional K-12 public schools.
In a Wednesday opinion column, Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, called the governor’s comments “offensive and wrong-headed.”
“Nebraska public schools clearly do, in fact, provide both excellence and choice,” she said.
Benson said his remarks were “hurtful” to the thousands of students, teachers and other Nebraskans working in public schools and “demeaning, coming from an official who is elected to serve every Nebraskan.”
In her column, she pointed to other instances in which she said Ricketts demeaned and disrespected public schools. They included the governor referring to “government schools” when endorsing a property tax cap last year and his refusal to sign a proclamation honoring NSEA’s 150th anniversary.
Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, disputed those assertions. In a series of tweets, he said Ricketts supports strong public schools, as demonstrated by his proposal to put a record $1.1 billion into the state’s school aid formula. Gage said the governor has regularly supported full funding for the formula.
He pointed as well to proclamations that the governor has issued in honor of public schools, such as those in 2017 that honored Blue Ribbon Schools.
In his tweets, Gage criticized “I Love Public Schools Day,” saying it was “named after a lobby group that consistently opposes education for low income families in the Legislature.” In a later statement, he cautioned against “conflating the union’s political goals and what’s best for the students and families of Nebraska.”
The day, which was observed on Jan. 20, has ties to Nebraska Loves Public Schools, an organization founded in 2011 “to change the persistent, negative narrative about public schools.” An organization spokeswoman said the group does not participate in lobbying.
The controversy arose as Nebraska lawmakers heard testimony about Ricketts’ proposal to cap the growth of property taxes going to public schools and other local governments at 3% annually. The governor spoke in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment as a needed step to curb tax increases. The NSEA opposed it, saying the measure would limit the ability of schools to meet the educational needs of children.
The two will be at odds again Thursday when the Revenue Committee hears Legislative Bill 364, which would provide tax credits for people who donate to private school scholarship funds.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, would start with $10 million a year for credits, with the amount growing over time. Ricketts left room in his budget plan to provide $2 million a year of such credits, saying the money would help low-income children have the same types of choices in schools as their better-off peers. He said he would support more if Linehan can get legislative approval for more.
The NSEA opposes the measure, which Benson called a “tax dodge.” Public school advocates have said it will mean less state funds available to support public schools.