OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska’s top election official confirmed Tuesday that state voters will decide next year whether public money can go to private school tuition.
A petition effort to get the question on the November 2024 ballot far exceeded the number of valid signatures needed to put the controversial question before voters, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office said in a written statement.
The effort seeks to repeal a measure passed by the Nebraska Legislature earlier this year allowing millions in state income tax to be diverted to organizations that grant private school tuition scholarships. That passage set up a battle between powerful education unions and heavily-funded conservative groups trying to make their mark on school policies following COVID-19 lockdowns and ongoing fights over transgender policies.
In August, the Support Our Schools referendum petition effort turned in 117,000 signatures to the Nebraska Secretary of State, nearly double the more than 61,000 valid signatures needed to make the ballot. On Tuesday, Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen announced that election officials validated nearly 92,000 of those collected signatures.
“The overwhelming success of this petition sends a clear message to the governor and state lawmakers: Nebraskans want to vote on the issue of diverting public tax dollars to pay for private schools,” petition effort sponsor Jenni Benson said.
The new school funding law does not appropriate taxpayer dollars directly toward private school vouchers. Instead, it allows businesses, individuals, estates and trusts to donate a portion of their owed state income tax.
Businesses and individuals would be allowed to donate up to $100,000 per year, while estates and trusts could offer up to $1 million a year. The bill would allocate $25 million a year over the first two years starting in 2024, and up to $100 million annually thereafter to cover such donations. That dollar-for-dollar tax credit is money that would otherwise go into the state’s general revenue fund.
Supporters of the scholarship program say it helps underprivileged students who have few other choices when they find themselves in an underperforming or toxic public school environment. They deny opponents’ assertions that it will hurt funding to public schools, noting that lawmakers also passed a bill this year that will pump more than $1 billion — mostly from federal pandemic recovery dollars — into public education.
Public school advocates counter that the act sends taxpayer dollars to private schools that are allowed under religious tenets to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students.
“This was a decisive victory and the first step to ensure public funds are used to support public schools, not private schools,” said Benson, who is also president of the Nebraska State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. “Nebraskans cannot afford to pay for two school systems.”
Supporters of the private school funding plan, including the state’s powerful Roman Catholic lobbying group, have launched their own effort — called Keep Kids First Nebraska — to counter the petition drive and made an aggressive push to try to convince people not to sign the petitions.
“The teachers union was willing to say and do anything to take educational freedom away from Nebraska families, so it is no surprise they gathered enough petition signatures to qualify for the ballot,” Keep Kids First said Tuesday in a written statement.
Evnen’s office said Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers will draft the ballot language for the measure in the coming days. In the weeks ahead of the 2024 election, state election staff will schedule three public hearings about the measure and create informational pamphlets that will be available to voters at county election offices, the Secretary of State’s office said.