Co-authored by: Karen Bowling and Timothy Benson
When it comes to parental choice in education, Nebraska is a 77,000-square-mile desert. The state has zero choice programs. If you are a Nebraska child, you’re pretty much stuck attending whatever public school you’re zoned into. Whether that school can fulfill your unique educational needs or keep you safe does not matter—that is, of course, unless your family has the financial means to send you to a private or parochial school better suited to meet your needs or you have the wherewithal to use option enrollment.
Lower-income families should have the same opportunity as wealthy ones to provide their children with a schooling option that best fulfills their unique educational needs and desires. Unfortunately, Nebraska lawmakers squandered an opportunity to provide those families with more school choice when they chose to filibuster LB 670. Thankfully, they still have next year’s session to reconsider their inaction.
LB 670 would have established Opportunity Scholarships, a tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students. Tax-credit scholarship programs allow qualifying families to pay for tuition and fees at the school of their choice using scholarships provided by donors, who, in return, receive tax credits.
Under LB 670, approved nonprofit organizations would have been eligible to grant scholarships to children from low-income families. Taxpayers would then have donated to these nonprofits in exchange for a 100 percent tax credit for up to half of their income tax liability for that year. The total cap on donations would have been $10 million for 2020. However, the Department of Revenue would have increased this cap by 125 percent annually if the program ended up being so popular that donations exceeded 90 percent of the capped limit.
Tax-credit scholarship programs are the most popular education choice program in the country. Currently, 23 scholarship programs are available in 18 states. Nebraska’s neighbors—Kansas, Iowa, and South Dakota—all provide tax-credit scholarship programs for low-income families.
These programs are popular because they’re effective. Copious empirical research on these programs shows they offer families improved access to high-quality schools and improve participant test scores and attainment outcomes. Similar programs have helped schools become more racially and ethnically diverse and improve the civic values and practices of participating students. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.
The big, unfounded concerns with scholarship tax credit programs are they leave students who remain in public schools worse off by diverting capable students and financial resources to other schools. This simply isn’t true. Two studies of tax-credit scholarship programs, both in Florida, home of the country’s largest tax-credit scholarship program, with more than 100,000 students enrolled, show the programs had a positive effect on test scores for public school students. Additionally, there have been 22 studies of other school choice programs on this subject, and only one showed the program in question negatively impacted scores at public schools.
There have been 17 total studies and audits evaluating the fiscal effects of tax-credit scholarship programs since 2009. Not a single one found these programs had a negative fiscal effect. A 2016 study by EdChoice estimated the fiscal effects of the nation’s 10 largest tax-credit scholarship programs, comprising 93 percent of all awarded scholarships. The study found these programs saved “state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts” from $1.7 billion to $3.4 billion through 2014. In other words, these programs saved anywhere from $1,750 to $3,000 per student. The savings in the 2013–14 school year alone (the last year available for study) ranged from $320 million to $580 million.
Senators missed a golden opportunity to help thousands of Nebraska children thrive when they failed to pass LB 670. A child’s zip-code should not be the main criteria where our children are educated.
Hopefully, they will rectify that mistake in 2020.
Timothy Benson is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
Karen Bowling is the executive director of Nebraska Family Alliance, a statewide nonpartisan policy and research non-profit located in Lincoln, Nebraska.