LINCOLN — At Sacred Heart Catholic School in North Omaha, teachers can point to desks in the classrooms and say a former student who once sat there now has a desk at the White House.
Symone Sanders is now the chief spokeswoman for Vice President Kamala Harris, but back in the day, she benefited from the smaller class size and individual attention afforded by a private school, said the Rev. Dave Korth, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church and president of a collaborative that runs three inner-city Catholic schools in the city.
“I don’t care what your politics are, that’s pretty impressive,” he said.
Sanders’ story was one of many shared Thursday with a panel of state lawmakers as an example of how private schools can help low-income students achieve lofty goals. But advocates said that can only happen if scholarships are more available to families who can’t afford private school tuition.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn told members of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee that her Legislative Bill 364 — the Opportunity Scholarship Act — would do that by providing a tax credit for people who donate money for scholarships to qualified private and parochial schools.
Not all students thrive in public schools, advocates of the bill said, and the choice to switch to a private school shouldn’t be limited by a family’s income or ZIP code.
Suraya Wayne of Omaha, a single mother attending Creighton University, said that her son was labeled as a troublemaker and fell way behind in math in public school, but was thriving a year after enrolling at St. Cecelia Catholic School.
“As senators, you have the ability to help people like me break the cycle of poverty,” she said.
Similar bills have failed to advance in past years, and opponents once again criticized the proposal as using public funds to finance a “second” school system and providing an overly generous tax break.
Under LB 364, an individual or corporation giving money to an approved organization that hands out the scholarships would get a 100% nonrefundable state tax break. The tax breaks would be capped at $10 million during the first year, but could grow, depending on demand for the credits, to almost $100 million after a decade, detractors said, taking away significant funds from other state priorities, like funding K-12 schools.
In other states, such tax breaks are typically snapped up immediately because they’re so lucrative, said Ann Hunter-Pirtle of Stand for Schools, which advocates for public schools.
“We don’t do this for (donations to) churches, we don’t do it for food banks, we don’t do it for cancer research,” she said.
Linehan, who has introduced similar legislation in the past, said she will likely prioritize the bill, which would ensure floor debate on it if advanced by the committee, which she chairs.