LINCOLN (SNR/NCC) – A revised state regulation took effect this month, bringing Nebraska’s “Textbook Loan Program” (TLP) up to speed with the digital age, thanks to extensive efforts over the past two years by the Nebraska Catholic Conference and other important collaborators and friends.
The TLP allows private school students to access “textbooks” purchased with state funds and provided by public schools. Under the TLP, public school districts must make available to private school students whatever “textbooks” they make available to their own students, to the extent the Nebraska State Legislature provides adequate funding.
But a critical question arose in recent years: do “textbooks” include the modern means by which students often learn today, including electronic or online textbooks, digital subscriptions, and “workbooks” that include both the primary text and write-in exercises within the same pages?
The updated regulation answers with a resounding “yes.”
According to the new provisions adopted by the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE), public school districts must now make available to private school students “electronic and digital subscriptions” along with multi-volume texts and write-in work texts, to the extent those materials are made available to public school students.
School districts must have ready their lists of “textbooks” for the 2017-2018 school year by Nov. 15. The updated rule requires that school districts indicate whether the textbooks are “multiple texts,” electronic or digital, or hard-copy write-in texts.
The new update didn’t come without significant effort. Prior to the revision, the NDE interpreted “textbook” to mean traditional, hard-bound books and limited electronic resources.
This created an ever-increasing gap between the kinds of materials available to public school students versus those available to private school students.
Then, in April of this year, the Nebraska Attorney General opined that “textbook” could be reasonably interpreted to include digital and other modern materials, and that under the TLP, school districts must provide private school students with equal access to all “textbooks.”
After ongoing discussions between the Nebraska Catholic Conference and the State Board of Education (SBE), a rulemaking hearing was finally set for July. There, a number of area Catholic school parents testified in favor of the revision. They highlighted the need for a more realistic understanding of the TLP in light of modern technology and the growing disparity of materials available to public school students versus private school students. Many more parents contacted their state board representative and strongly encouraged them to adopt the change.
By mid-August, the Board agreed.
Under the TLP, parents of elementary students may request up to ten textbooks per student, while parents of junior high and high school students may request up to eight books per student. The Legislature has appropriated $465,000 for the TLP this year. If parents request more textbooks than school districts can afford with their TLP funding, then the school districts may limit the number of textbooks they make available.
The TLP is the only form of state aid provided to children attending private schools in Nebraska. It has been reviewed and deemed constitutional by the Nebraska Supreme Court, and is thereby an important, if only minute, recognition of the contributions of Catholic education to the overall common good.
The Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) is the statewide association operated jointly by the Archdiocese of Omaha, Diocese of Grand Island, and Diocese of Lincoln. Located in Lincoln, the NCC represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three Roman Catholic bishops before the Nebraska legislature, the Nebraska delegation in Congress, and state agencies. The public policy issues addressed by the NCC include institutional concerns of the Catholic Church as well as issues related to Catholic moral and social teaching, human dignity, and the common good.