Nebraska lawmakers weigh proposal to use public funds to enroll in private schools

LINCOLN. On Tuesday, the Nebraska MP called on a legislative committee to allow students to use public funds to fund private schools if they are denied a school district transfer.

Bill 528, proposed by State Senator Ben Hansen of Blair, provides for the creation of Nebraska’s tuition bill program. An enrollment option is when students want to enroll in a school district that is not their home district. But some districts turn down such requests. LB 528 will allow students in such cases to use public funds to attend a private school.

“I want you to create options within the options set, ensuring there is a path forward for students who have been denied,” Hansen told the Education Committee.

Under the bill, a student whose application for elective placement is denied may apply to the State Board of Education for an elective tuition account that can be used to pay for tuition and fees at a private, confessional, or parochial school.

The amount contributed by the Board of Education will be equal to the adjusted average cost per student at the student’s previous school, which is calculated based on the education funding plan. Gov. Jim Pillen and some state senators are seeking to change this session. Disabled students will receive additional funds through the program.

So, Hansen said, the money will come from the state’s general funds, not from public schools.

“Best fit”

Downell Gluntz, an instructor at Grand Island Catholic Central School, testified in support of LB 528 and said the bill does not address the fight between public and private schools.

“Students deserve an education tailored to their specific needs,” Gluntz said. “This applies to all students, but in a different way to students in the IEP. [individualized educational plan] or 504″.

Some opponents have raised concerns that some parents may “abuse” the system and send their students to different schools using the help.

But Gluntz said in her 36 years as a special education teacher, this has never happened; there’s always a reason to change, she said.

A Grand Island Central Catholic College freshman who was denied an additional enrollment request said his support at GICC helped him transition from an IEP to a 504 support plan. However, the move was without financial support and had financial implications for his family.

The IEP is a program tailored to the individual needs of a child, while the 504 provides equal access to education for people with disabilities.

“The goal of LB 528 is not to have every school fit every child,” Hansen said. “It’s about making sure every child has the chance to find the school that’s best for them.”

Delegation of responsibility

Connie Knoch, director of education policy at the OpenSky Policy Institute, said Hansen’s bill would essentially allow the state to pay for private education.

Knoch said there were also concerns about the long-term implications of Hansen’s bill, which has unknown financial implications, and she expressed concern about how the program would be funded in practice.

It’s also unclear whether a student should be denied elective admission year after year in order to receive permanent financial aid, Knoch added.

Jacob Carmichael of Bennington told the committee that the bill could harm Nebraska’s youth, especially transgender people and others in Nebraska’s LGBT community, if there were no non-discrimination policies in private schools.

“I congratulate you all for obfuscating your responsibility by shifting education to religious organizations and not doing what this committee is supposed to do or should do at all,” Carmichael said.

Dunixi Gereka, executive director of Stand For Schools, an organization that advocates for protecting public schools and their funding, expressed concern about how the state will monitor and hold tuition bills accountable.

Privatization could harm communities of color, Gereka said, and public school funds should not be used for private schools.

New Generation

State Senator Justin Wayne of Omaha rebuffed some of the opponents who testified against the bill, offering no solution other than increasing funding for education in general.

“There has to be more than just this,” Wayne said.

He told one witness that waiting to provide additional opportunities for students could result in another generation of children being left behind.

“I have two years left. I don’t want to keep saying, “Let’s wait,” Wayne said. “I need an answer for these families.”

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