Busloads of students from private schools in Nebraska donned yellow scarves and braved the cold to listen to a host of people advocate for school choice on the Capitol steps Thursday morning.
Gov. Pete Ricketts told the crowd his administration wants to make sure there are no barriers for parents who want to make choices that best fit their kids, regardless of income or ZIP code.
"Certainly we have great public schools here in Nebraska -- I'm a product of public schools and my kids have been in public schools," he said. "It's certainly one of the great ways we have to educate kids.
"But we also know it's not the only way to educate kids. We want to make sure every kid has an opportunity to be able to find the educational choice that fits them."
Speakers at the rally attended by hundreds of students from Catholic and Lutheran schools in Lincoln and Omaha said it's time for the Legislature to follow other states that have legislation authorizing charter schools, vouchers or tax credits for private-school scholarship donations.
Ricketts said 43 states now authorize charter schools, 17 allow vouchers and 14 have tax credit programs.
Bills that would allow all three of those programs have been introduced this year.
Previous bills regarding charters or tax credits have failed, but advocates are seizing on national and local shifts.
Betsy Devos, President Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, is a staunch school choice advocate who donated millions to the cause in Michigan. Ricketts and some senators support the idea in Nebraska.
But public school proponents are pushing back with organized promotion on social media, a news conference Wednesday and a national campaign by the National Education Association and state associations to oppose Devos’ confirmation.
Thursday, two people stood across the street from the rally with signs in support of public schools, and the words "Say No 2 Charter Schemes" were displayed atop the Nebraska State Education Association building across the street.
But several speakers at the rally said the issue is about expanding opportunities for parents, not hurting public schools.
Rachel Idra-Rocu, a fifth-grader at All Saints Catholic School in Omaha, said her family moved here as refugees of Sudan, and she likes the small community of her school. But her parents could not afford to send all six of her siblings to private school.
Avery Wieting, a fifth-grader at Messiah Lutheran in Lincoln, said his Christian education addresses his spiritual health without sacrificing academic success.
Clarice Jackson, chairwoman of the Omaha mayor’s human rights and relations board, said education is a human right and children should not be forced to attend public schools when those schools are failing.
“There are lots of children who are in low-income families that cannot afford to pay for another choice even though the school they are in is failing them and has failed their parents before them,” she said. “That is not OK.”
Deb Portz of Lincoln said the per-pupil cost for private school students is significantly lower than public schools, and she said school choice could generate revenue for the state.
“As a taxpayer I want to know why Nebraska cannot redirect education spending of our tax dollars to give parents more educational choices using existing resources we have that are available and successful at educating the public at a fraction of the cost,” she said.