The sunny name of a new lobbying organization, “Educate Nebraska,” belies the group’s shadowy funding sources and motives. Launched last month to push for charter schools in the state, like previous charter school efforts in Nebraska, the group’s goal is to defund public schools, and to open the door for public dollars to be used toward private tuition and private gain.
Nebraskans know better. Governor Pete Ricketts, Senator Bill Krist, and the right-wing Platte Institute all support charter schools, saying they may help students in poverty. But one would be hard-pressed to find a cast of characters with a more dismal record on poverty.
According to a recent profile of Katie Linehan, Educate Nebraska’s founder, the group “does not disclose” its sources of funding. Her organization claims charter schools are the solution to educational disparities in struggling areas of North Omaha. Ms. Linehan herself attended private schools in Omaha, while her mother served as Chief of Staff to then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel. Ms. Linehan's own education notwithstanding, Educate Nebraska misses the bigger picture.
Charter schools are wrong for Nebraska. Nebraska has one of the best graduation rates in the nation, ranked #1 in ACT scores for states where 80 percent or more of students take that college readiness exam.
And Nebraska already has school choice. A student in North Omaha can choose to attend a school in Millard, Elkhorn or for that matter, Scottsbluff, and state funding follows that student to the new school. So why aren’t students leaving the small number of struggling Nebraska schools? Many parents work two jobs or rely on public transportation. Many can’t afford long drives each day to take a child to a distant school.
The real problem is that Nebraska’s funding formula for education relies more heavily on property taxes than 48 other states. Schools in low-income areas have smaller budgets than schools in wealthier areas, even though low-income homeowners pay more property tax as a percentage of their income than their wealthier neighbors do.
In addition, charter schools can be exclusive when enrolling students. Children who most need a stable, supportive school — children who are homeless, children who have an incarcerated parent, who exhibit behavioral problems — are less likely than others to apply or be accepted into a charter school. Charter schools cherry pick the best students, further concentrating struggling students in the public schools that face the greatest obstacles.
Senator Ernie Chambers represents the North Omaha schools that Educate Nebraska purports to help. Chambers has long opposed charter schools, and as reported by the Washington Times in 2014, "vowed to fight any renewed effort [to allow charter schools], saying he rejects proponents’ stance that it’s better to help some children escape struggling schools than none. ‘We don’t feed some of our children and starve the others.’ ”
Charter schools are a first step toward cutting funding for public schools and using tax dollars toward vouchers for private education. For the dismal record of that policy, we need only look at what’s happened in Kansas. There, the Koch brothers anointed Sam “Nightmare” Brownback as governor, who promptly slashed the state budget in 2011. Kansas has now lost 4,500 teachers, and some schools had to end the 2014-15 academic year early—there were no more funds.
Educate Nebraska’s board of advisors and directors includes just one Nebraska native from outside Omaha, who now lives in New York City. How much Koch money is represented is anybody's guess. But more members have ties to charters schools in Chicago, New York, Texas and Arizona than Lincoln, let alone anywhere else in Nebraska.
A better solution would be to adjust the state funding formula for public schools to balance the costs more fairly and rely less heavily on property taxes—spreading funding more evenly across wealthier and less wealthy districts.
Nebraskans know better than to be schooled by out-of-state advisory boards funded by unnamed donors. With access to adequate funding, a strong public school education offers life-changing opportunity to every Nebraska child—as it did for me.
Ann Hunter-Pirtle is a graduate of the Lincoln Public School system and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.