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Families pushing for state financial help in educating their children outside of traditional public schools rallied outside the Capitol on Thursday morning. 

Busloads of parochial schoolchildren, along with a handful of kids who are home schooled or attend public schools, donned yellow scarves and packed the west steps of the statehouse at 10 a.m.

"Your ZIP code should not determine what kind of education you get," Gov. Pete Ricketts, a supporter, told the crowd.

A fifth-grader from Christ Schools Elementary talked about loving her school and her Christian education.

"I am glad there are options when it comes to education in our state," Ellie Volk, her school's student council president, told the crowd. "But our government needs to provide ways through which all families can choose the best program to educate their children — either public or nonpublic."

Some of the hundreds in attendance urged Nebraska to allow charter schools, which receive public funding but operate outside the normal public school system. Others want the state to let families opt out of supporting public schools with their tax dollars if they choose to send their children to private school or teach them at home.

Those parents argue they are paying twice for their children's education.

Attempts to advance those goals have struggled to gain footing in the Legislature.

Members of one legislative committee killed a bill (LB616) last year that would have created a charter school pilot project in Omaha.

Another bill, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, would provide state tax credits for donors who help establish scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. That measure (LB26) was also introduced last year and remains lodged in the Legislature's Revenue Committee. Krist, who attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school in Omaha, urged Thursday's crowd to contact committee members and encourage them to advance the bill.

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The rally drew impassioned speeches from people who said public schools had failed their children or themselves.

Clarice Jackson of Omaha said while public school worked for her son, it left her daughter essentially illiterate through fourth grade.

That changed when she transferred to a private school, she said.

"We need to quit putting up roadblocks to educational excellence for our children," she said.

Nebraska is one of seven states that have not allowed for some form of charter school under state law.

Thursday's rally took place across the street from the headquarters of the Nebraska State Education Association, the state teachers' union. As children gathered on the Capitol steps, paper lettering appeared in the NSEA windows that spelled out, "PUBLIC $ 4 PUBLIC SCHOOLS."

Opponents of charter schools and similar initiatives argue they hurt public schools by taking away essential funds. Supporters say its an issue of fairness and that increased competition would force public schools to improve.

After the rally, Ricketts acknowledged school choice advocates are playing "a long-term game."

"We want to make progress on school choice every year," he said. "Our work is never done when it comes to education."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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