By Tom Venzor
United States Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited Nebraska Sept. 13-14. Secretary DeVos’ visit was part of her “Rethink Schools” tour. The tour’s purpose was “to highlight the innovative and groundbreaking work happening in schools across America” and “showcase creative ways in which education leaders are meeting the needs of students in K-12 and higher education.”
Secretary DeVos visited several select schools in Nebraska, one of which was St. Mary Catholic School in Lincoln. In addition to its diverse and gifted student population, one of the main reasons Secretary DeVos visited St. Mary’s was its participation in the “EC3 Academy” which is a program created by Dan Alberts.
St. Mary was the first school to open its doors to the EC3 Academy, a private nonprofit that employs University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineering and math students to provide one-on-one tutoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”). Since its inception, our hard-working students at St. Mary have seen incredible successes in the STEM areas.
Secretary DeVos’ visit to St. Mary’s was peaceful and joyous. The same cannot be said of the rest of her visit. While the “Rethink Schools” tour had little to do with school choice, Secretary DeVos’ reputation as a staunch school choice supporter preceded her, which created an opportunity for anti-school choice advocates to show their animosity toward Secretary DeVos and education choice.
It was expected that anti-school choice advocates would protest Secretary DeVos’ visit, but how they protested was alarming. Secretary DeVos was greeted by the clamor of anti-school choice advocates, ranging from some of the highest-ranking education figures in our state and local communities, down to the average citizen-protestor.
The anti-school choice advocates were adamant in making school choice a theme of Secretary DeVos’ visit, thereby detracting from the actual theme of the “Rethink Schools” tour. Only when the media raised the question of school choice during press conferences did Secretary DeVos talk about school choice. Needless to say, the anti-school choice noise was impossible to ignore.
One might ask: Why would anti-school choice advocates shift the theme to education choice?
The anti-school choice establishment is threatened by the real possibility that education choice may finally gain a foothold in Nebraska. Nebraska is one of the few remaining states without some form of robust education choice for our students and families.
But the tide is turning.
This last legislative session, the Revenue Committee of the Nebraska Unicameral advanced to the full legislature LB295, which would implement a scholarship tax credit program. This program would provide tax credits to donors who contribute funds to scholarship granting organizations. These funds are then turned into scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend the accredited or approved parochial or private school of their choice.
LB295 is an important first step in breaking down unjust impediments for families to pursue the best possible educational choices for their children. The anti-school choice folks recognize how monumental LB295 is and have been ramping up their political machines in opposition to school choice.
As Secretary DeVos’ visit makes clear, anti-school choice folks will stop at nothing to find any possible political platform from which to tout their anti-school choice message. It is incumbent upon school choice advocates to respond with charitable, truthful arguments that demonstrate why our children are better off when they actually have access to the school that best meets their educational needs and desires.
To end with one of my favorite quotes—a mix of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis: “If indeed ‘the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,’ the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.’”
Remember to register for the Bishops’ Pro-Life Banquet and Conference (“Life Is Worth Living”). The event is Sept. 29 (Banquet) and 30 (Conference) at the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln. You won’t want to miss this year’s keynote speaker, Wesley J. Smith, speaker and best-selling author on the issues of bioethics, human dignity, and assisted suicide. Registration closes on Monday, Sept. 25, so act now. For more information and to register, visit www.necatholic.org or call the NCC (402.477.7517).