In the last four years, the governor and the Legislature have increased the property tax credit fund from $140 million to $224 million, a 60 percent increase. Approximately 60 percent, or $146.4 million of the property tax credit fund, goes to K-12 education.
These funds are in addition to the almost $1 billion in school funding made available to public schools through TEEOSA (Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act). Funding for K-12 education -- whether through the state TEEOSA funding formula, teacher retirement contributions or special education funding -- has increased as well.
Unfortunately, there are large disparities in state school funding between different school districts. Some districts, mostly large urban and suburban districts, receive up to 50 percent of their funding from state sources, while others, usually smaller rural districts, receive as little as 11 percent from state sources.
This is a disparity that needs to be corrected. But we also need to have an honest discussion regarding how much spending is enough.
It is insightful to compare Nebraska school per-pupil funding to our neighboring states. According to the most recently available U.S. Census data, Nebraska’s taxpayers spent $12,299 per public school student per year in 2015.
In the same year, South Dakota spent $9,176 per student; Colorado spent $9,575 per student; Kansas spent $9,960 per student; Missouri spent $10,313 per student; and Iowa spent $10,944 per student. These differences in per-pupil spending equate to huge sums. Just a $1,000 increase for each of Nebraska's 300,000 students per year in Nebraska equals $300 million.
The $3,000 per-year difference between South Dakota and Nebraska equates to $900 million. Though funding amounts vary greatly among our neighboring states, educational outcomes in our neighboring states are not significantly different from Nebraska.
According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” in 2013, eighth graders in Colorado public schools scored 271 points on reading assessments; Nebraska and Iowa tied at 269; South Dakota at 268; and Kansas and Missouri both at 267. The 2013 math scores for eighth graders were more disconcerting. Kansas and Colorado students scored 290; South Dakota 287; Iowa and Nebraska both at 285; and Missouri at 283. The national average for eighth graders in math was 284.
Even though per-pupil spending is higher, Nebraska came in slightly above average.
The 2017 ACT scores reflect similar results:
* Colorado: 100 percent of students took test; average score was 20.8.
* Iowa: 67 percent of students took test; average score was 21.9.
* Kansas: 73 percent of students took test; average score was 21.7.
* Missouri: 100 percent of students took test; average score was 20.4.
* Nebraska: 84 percent of students took test; average score was 21.4.
* South Dakota: 80 percent of students took test; average score was 21.8.
According to Nebraska’s most recent state assessments, only half of Nebraska third-graders are proficient in reading. That’s why I worked across party lines to pass legislation to improve access to high-quality interventions for struggling readers starting in kindergarten.
Third-graders in Nebraska must be reading and ready to succeed by the time they start fourth grade. This is one example of a policy that puts kids first and invests in our future.
And, it need not cost more money. It is a matter of prioritization.
Special interest groups -- such as the Nebraska State Education Association, the Nebraska Association of School Administrators, left-leaning think tanks and others -- continue to recycle inaccurate and outdated talking points to mislead Nebraskans about spending on education.
Nebraska contributes significant state dollars to K-12 education. Local spending is also high, which drives up property taxes. The solution to lowering the tax burden in Nebraska, both property and income, is not to spend more.
As policymakers, our job is to be responsible with the dollars taxpayers invest in students and education in Nebraska. Those calling for more spending, without a plan to improve outcomes for all students, must be honest about the facts. And those responsible for educating children must be accountable with public dollars.
I will continue to work with my colleagues, including chairman of the Education Committee, Sen. Mike Groene, who battles every day for a more transparent and equitable school finance structure, and educators across the state to ensure Nebraska students are provided with a high-quality education, focusing on both quality and accountability, as well as responsibility to taxpayers.