Nebraska has great public schools, but growing income inequality means that more students arrive at the schoolhouse door each day with growing needs and challenges. At the same time, the state has been lowering its investment in children and public schools.
With that in mind, an alliance of education and religious organizations have partnered to support a suite of bills now before the Nebraska Legislature. The package will invest in Nebraska’s future and help public schools perform even better.
The package of bills offers broader mental health services for children in public and private schools; greater access to a supplement nutrition program for children in poverty; investment in early childhood education; more career training options; and investment in special education; among other items. Many of the proposals would provide direct property tax relief.
“We have growing needs, shrinking budgets and an overreliance on property taxes,” said Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director for Stand for Schools, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing public education in Nebraska. “Those factors exacerbate inequality, overburdens taxpayers and harms our must vulnerable kids.”
Pastor Michael Williams represents more than 30 churches as the community liaison for the Baptist Pastors and Ministers Conference of Omaha. Williams and his colleagues lauded public schools as the “only schools that educate all children regardless of their race, regardless of their religion, regardless of their income.
“Public schools are a moral good,” said Williams. “My colleagues and I support efforts to strengthen them and to make them work better for all students, especially those most vulnerable.”
Also supporting the package are the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA), the Nebraska Association of School Boards (NASB), and the Nebraska Council of School Administrators.
NASB Executive Director John Spatz said Nebraskans hear the constant drumbeat asking elected officials to “run government like a business.
“My organization represents more than 1,700 elected officials in this state who know that to run government like a business, you can’t just slash budgets to the bone with no vision for the future,” said Spatz. “Any business that operated that way would fail. Instead, we would invest in the wisest possible programs to put us on a better track for the future,” he said. That’s what this effort is all about, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
Among highlights in the package:
- A bill introduced by Fremont Sen. Lynn Walz to create a Children’s Connection in Nebraska’s 19 Educational Service Units. Under the proposal, a social worker will staff each ESU and would connect students with local mental health and behavioral health services. The effort would be funded by a public-private partnership.
- The Child Hunger and Workforce Readiness Act would make school breakfast and lunch free to children who now qualify for reduce-priced school meals. “Nobody can do their best when they are hungry,” said Walz, who will sponsor the act.
- Sen. Rich Kolowski will champion a bill that will fully reimburse school districts for pre-kindergarten students they now have enrolled. The measure will provide direct property tax relief.
- Kolowski also called on the legislature to fund special education at 80 percent of a school district’s costs, rather than the estimated current rate of 48 percent. That, too, would provide direct property tax relief.
- Also in the special education funding arena, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks has introduced a Legislative Resolution calling on Congress to fully fund special education, removing that cost from the backs of local property tax payers. Additionally, Pansing Brooks said she will introduce a bill to ensure students are getting the services they need to address struggles with reading. “We need to make sure that teachers have the training they need to help identify, remediate, and address those challenges.”
- Local school districts would be provided the authority to expand learning opportunities under a bill introduced by Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld. “High-quality before- and after-school and summer programs are a proven way to reduce the opportunity gap and keep kids, especially at-risk kids, out of trouble,” said Morfeld. “Many school districts in the state, especially in rural areas, do not currently have the authority to invest in these kinds of programs, even if the funds are available.”
- Support for youth employment and career training would be provided through matching grants under a plan from Omaha Sen. Burke Harr. “One of the biggest challenges employers face in Nebraska is finding employees with the right skills. Great jobs exist here, but employers often have a hard time filling them. Career education is critical both to keeping great companies here and giving Nebraskans the skills and opportunity to land good-paying jobs.”
- Making sure children have nutritious food to eat not just during the school day, but throughout the year, is the goal of Omaha Sen. John McCollister’s proposal. LB770 would raise the income eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to 158 percent of the federal poverty level for families from 130 percent. “Many Nebraska children who qualify for free and reduced-priced school lunches don’t always have enough to eat at home for dinner, or on the weekends, or in the summers—because their families sometimes can’t afford enough food.”
Jenni Benson, a 30-year teacher and president of the NSEA, thanked the senators for introducing the proposals.
“Teachers believe in making sure public schools work for every child. This effort is designed to do just that – and we believe that legislators who are serious about lifting up our children and improving public schools will support the bills outlined today. I’ve spent my adult life teaching children – from pre-school to high school students. I assure you there is no greater investment for our individual and collective future, than the investment in the education of our children.”
Hunter-Pirtle said Nebraska has excellent public schools, though they are far from perfect.
“The answer to public schools’ challenges is not divestment or privatization in the form of charter schools, vouchers, or tax credits—it is investment in our children and our state’s future,” said Hunter-Pirtle. “We hope today’s announcement will start a serious discussion about how we improve our already strong public schools—and it has to start with a commitment to our kids. When we invest in our children, we are committing to making tomorrow better than today.”