Tuesday, September 19, 2006


In the wake of a judge’s ruling Monday that the Omaha metro-area mega-district “Learning Community” set up by last legislative session’s LB 1024 is unconstitutional, unwieldy and unfair, it’s time to unveil a better, smarter, simpler way to fix Nebraska’s twin education crises.

This plan works in two ways with a single theme: school choice.

It gives options and opportunities to low-income, inner-city children who are receiving a substandard education by creating for them a system of opportunity scholarships and tax credits so that they can attend the school of their choice, similar to what’s available in states such as Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

And it gives alternatives to rural Nebraska families who want to keep their small, highly effective country grade schools going, whether or not voters revive the Class I schools on the Nov. 7 ballot. Nebraska will follow the lead of Vermont and Maine, which have been sending thousands of rural schoolchildren to private schools at government expense for more than 125 years in a system called “town tuitioning.”

At the heart of the plan:




Call it the “Go Big Ed Two-Way, Triple-D Strategy.” The elements:

Repeal LB 1024.

The plan calls for next session’s Legislature to cancel LB 1024 for the reasons cited in the judge’s well-written order, mainly that it was highly politicized, confusing, complicated and concentrating on the regulations and systems rather than what the public really wants: a way to make education more effective for our neediest young citizens and, if anything, save money rather than spend more.

Repeal LB 126.

The polls show that Nebraskans will rebuke the Legislature on Nov. 7 and repeal LB 126, the attempted assassination of Nebraska’s remaining one-room country schools. These schools are generally operating for the same cost, or cheaper, than their urban counterparts, and the kids are doing better in them than in the town schools. If the will of the people is to revive the country schools, the matter will go to the Unicam, then, and that bad bill should be round-filed once and for all.

Make State Aid the Same For All Nebraska Schoolchildren.

Every year, there’s a huge hubbub in the Legislature over state aid, and which districts are going to get more and which are going to get less. The politicization has become frightful, and the focus of the attention has shifted off of how to deliver the most effective education, and onto how to bring in more money. The current system pits urban against rural, rich against poor, and people in districts with more influential state senators against people in districts with ho-hum representatives. There’s no hope of cost-effectiveness or accountability in the present structure. The only way to get true educational equity is to give parents school choice, and give each set of parents the same amount of money to spend as they see fit. State aid should be uniform – the same amount for every child – within certain boundaries, such as different amounts for elementary and secondary students since it really does cost more to educate the latter.

School Choice Vouchers For Lowest-Income K-12 Pupils.

Next, the Legislature will set a per-pupil amount of money in state aid that will be the same for every public-school child in Nebraska and will become “portable” in a new school-choice system. Children whose family incomes are so low they receive free lunch through government subsidies would be able to “spend” that state aid in a private school, or in a different public school than the one in which they reside, if they choose. If state aid is higher than the private school’s tuition, fees, and uniform requirements, the excess state aid must be turned back to the state. Note that state aid is almost always higher than private-school tuition. It also usually makes up less than half of the per-pupil expense in any given school or district. That means that, even if the child leaves his or her residential school district, that district would still receive property tax funding even though it doesn’t have to serve that child, an important cushion that will protect the public schools.

“Opportunity Scholarships” to Help the Lower Middle Class Have School Choice, Too.

For those children whose family incomes are low enough for them to receive a reduced-price lunch, but not so low that they receive a free lunch, the Legislature will create a new form of tax credits to inspire tuition assistance programs to help them enroll in private schools if they choose, while actually saving money for Nebraska taxpayers. Lower middle class children can obtain “opportunity scholarships” in the form of more modest tuition assistance stipends from a nonprofit scholarship organization such as the Children’s Scholarship Fund. Nebraskans who donate to such funds will receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits of up to $1,000 per couple.

Allow OPS and Other Districts to Form Charter Schools.

To help the Omaha Public Schools cope with this new competition and the loss of enrollment from many of its inner-city schools, the Legislature should empower the OPS school board to free those schools of nonsense regulations, get more parent and community involvement, and adopt new policies and even new management geared toward meeting the special educational needs of low-income and non-English speaking students. Charter schools could be managed and staffed from within OPS' existing workforce, or a private contractor such as the successful KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) could be hired on long-time contracts aimed at turning around the horrendously low test scores in inner-city Omaha. This freedom to be free of onerous regulations and form charter schools should be extended to all Nebraska school districts with a meaningful charter-school law, recognizing that Nebraska is one of only a handful of states in the country that offers families no charter schools and no school choice.

“Town Tuitioning” For Rural Nebraska.

In most Nebraska cities and towns, there is just one public-school district. There may or may not be any private-school options to choose from. But if Nebraska law were changed to make it legal for state-aid to flow with the child to the school of the parents’ choice, then there could be new life for the more than 200 small, elementary-only Class I schools in villages and hamlets across the state. If voters repeal LB 126, as expected, then the uniform state-aid funding called for in the Go Big Ed plan – likely to be about $3,000 per pupil – would be higher than what those small schools are now receiving, in almost all cases, and would provide adequate financing for the rural schools to keep operating and perhaps even offer much-needed property tax relief to the surrounding farmers. But if voters decide that LB 126 is OK and the country schools can go, then those Class I families could still opt to start private schools or multifamily attendance center homeschools in their hamlets and villages, use the uniform state-aid voucher to offset tuition costs and keep their schools going.

OK – let’s hear from you. What do you think?

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