LB295: enacting education freedom in Nebraska
Tom Venzor is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC). The NCC is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Nebraska and represents the mutual public policy interests of the three Catholic bishops serving in Nebraska. Recently, we interviewed Tom about one the NCC’s most important public policy matters (LB295) they are working on this legislative session on behalf of the three bishops.
Q: Before we jump into LB295, what is it exactly that the NCC does?
A: Great question! The NCC works on public policy issues for the three Bishops of Nebraska. Predominantly, we focus on the Nebraska Unicameral—our state legislature.
The NCC analyzes legislative bills introduced by state senators, advises the bishops on these legislative bills, and actively engages in legislation of interest to the bishops. We also engage the executive and judicial branches of state government and are active with public policy issues at the federal level. Our office also operates the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.
Q: So, what is LB295?
A: LB295 is a legislative bill called the Opportunity Scholarships Act. The legislation provides private school scholarships for low-income and working-class students. It does so by enacting a tax credit for donations to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations. This type of policy is popularly referred to as “tax credit scholarship programs.”
Q: Is there a really a need for LB295?
A: This is an important question and reveals the motivation for this legislation. The simple fact is this: too many parents in our state lack true freedom of education choice. Many parents simply cannot afford to pay both taxes in support of government schools and tuition for parochial or other private schools. But every single child in Nebraska deserves to go to a school that best suits his or her needs, regardless of income. LB295 allows for more private—not public funds—for scholarships to attend private school, which too many families cannot otherwise afford.
Q: Aren’t there already enough scholarship opportunities for children?
A: Our Catholic schools—across all three dioceses—are doing tremendous work to keep Catholic education affordable for everybody, thanks to generous and sacrificial benefactors. Our schools also do incredible work in stretching every dollar as far as they can, without sacrificing attention to students and while producing excellent results. Nevertheless, we also know more students need scholarship opportunities than there are scholarship funds.
This is even true for other organizations trying to create more scholarship opportunities. For example, the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Omaha raised around $2.5 million in 2017. With that money, they served more than 1,800 students. But they also turned away 635 applications because they lacked scholarship funds.
The lack of scholarship opportunities is real and impacting children every day.
Q: Why is LB295 so important to the bishops and for Catholics?
A: This is probably one of my favorite questions. It reveals a beautiful aspect of our faith that is not talked about enough.
As Catholics, we know that faith and reason lead us to truth. And the truth is that parents have the right to choose a school for their children which corresponds to their own convictions. Parents should have true liberty in their choice of schools. The state and public authorities, therefore, have an obligation to ensure that parents can truly exercise the right to educate their children as they see fit.
When the state fails to recognize this right, it commits a grave injustice against human dignity. This injustice is amplified when our low-income and working-class families are denied educational freedom. Unfortunately, Nebraska is committing this grave injustice.
Q: Would Nebraska be the first state to adopt tax credit scholarships?
A: No, Nebraska would not be the first. In fact, Nebraska would join 18 other states with similar tried-and-tested programs. This includes some of our neighbors: South Dakota, Kansas, and Iowa. These programs have saved more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer dollars all together. We also know, based on Nebraska-specific studies, that LB295 would create taxpayer savings almost immediately after the program is implemented, since the state would see an influx of students transferring from public to private schools.
Q: Speaking of public schools, would LB295 hurt public schools?
A: This is a very important question since there can often be confusion about how tax credit scholarships work. Sometimes there are even “campaigns of misinformation” against education choice policies. LB295 directs only private—not public—funds to private school students. It helps reduce costly overcrowding in Lincoln and Omaha public schools.
To reiterate, LB295 actually saves state tax dollars by slowing the amount of state aid needed for public schools. If a scholarship recipient transfers from public to private school, it will likely leave more resources for the state to spend on fewer students. As evident, LB295 comes nowhere near hurting public schools.
Q: How can ordinary Catholics help LB295 advance through the legislature and get signed into law?
A: I thought you would never ask! Being a faithful citizen is essential to being Catholic. To paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI: Having received the love of Jesus Christ, Catholics cannot sit on the sidelines in the fight for justice—we must engage in the political sphere of society.
To help LB295 pass through the legislature and become signed into law by Governor Ricketts, you can do a variety of things: join our advocacy network by visiting www.necatholic.org; write, call, or e-mail your state senator (find their information at www.nebraskalegislature.gov); write to Governor Ricketts; write letters to the editor; host an LB295 info session at your parish (school); share information from our social media outlets (find us on Facebook and Twitter).
Thanks for being an advocate on behalf of low-income and working-class families across Nebraska who desire educational opportunity and justice through tax credit scholarships!
Editor's Note: Follow Tom Venzor's column on legislative issues here.