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Pillen approves Nebraska’s newest ‘school choice’ law as opponents weigh next steps

Nebraska Examiner

Gov. Jim Pillen (left) signs Legislative Bill 1402 from State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, a replacement “school choice” measure for a 2023 bill. (Courtesy of Gov. Jim Pillen’s office)

LINCOLN — Gov. Jim Pillen on Wednesday approved a Nebraska lawmaker’s replacement “school choice” measure as opponents now weigh how they will fight the new law.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan details what she views as the impacts of LB 753 on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 1402, from State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, will devote $10 million to the state treasurer to distribute private K-12 scholarships to prospective students. It also effectively repeals Linehan’s Opportunity Scholarships Act (LB 753) passed in 2023.

“I’m very excited for a bunch of low-income kids who couldn’t access an education that best fits their needs, and now they’ll be able to,” Linehan told the Nebraska Examiner on Wednesday.

While opponents successfully placed last year’s measure on the November 2024 ballot, which would allow voters to decide the fate of the Opportunity Scholarships Act, the status of that referendum remains uncertain because of LB 1402.

Secretary of State Bob Evnen has not yet announced the fate of that referendum and whether it would remain on the ballot or be removed. A spokesperson said earlier this week the secretary was still consulting with the attorney general.

It’s the first time in state history a legislative act has repealed an active ballot referendum.

With Pillen’s signature, LB 1402 will take effect mid-July since it passed 32-14 without an “emergency clause,” which would have allowed the bill to take effect one day after signing.

The previous law appropriated $25 million for one-to-one tax credits with an “escalator” clause that could have ballooned the appropriation to $100 million. Linehan at first sought $25 million for LB 1402 but reduced the price tag and removed the escalator clause to help get the bill over the finish line.

Linehan fought for multiple years to bring school choice to Nebraska and end its status as one of just two states without some form of school choice (the final is North Dakota). 

“It’s a civil rights issue because if your family is stuck in a school district that doesn’t work for you with no way out, that is not what America is supposed to be about,” Linehan said earlier this month.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, at left, leads a march of teachers from downtown Lincoln to the Nebraska State Capitol on April 29, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Opponents to devoting any public funds for private education, such as the Nebraska State Education Association, have vowed to act against LB 1402 and described its passage as “a slap in the face to voters.”

“We will fight back against the cowardly and cynical attempt to deny Nebraskans their right to vote,” Jenni Benson, president of the NSEA, said in a weekend statement.

Next steps could include legal action on the bill’s constitutionality or another referendum, which would require thousands of signatures by this summer.

“Instead of sending public dollars to private schools, which are under no obligation to serve all children, state funds should be used to support the public schools that 9 out of 10 Nebraska students attend,” Benson said.


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