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Local View: Nebraska needs opportunity scholarships

Local View: Nebraska needs opportunity scholarships

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Just like any parent, I want my kids to be happy, healthy and have every opportunity they need to be successful. The key to a child’s success depends on their care and education, and abundant research shows just how vital the early formative years are.

In my nearly 20 years as an educator, I have learned that every child has unique needs and learns differently. I have also learned that parents are desperate for more options to meet those needs in their children’s care and education.

On Wednesday, the Nebraska Legislature will have the opportunity to show their commitment to expanding parents’ options and investing in the future of our state by passing LB364.

The Opportunity Scholarships Act (LB364), introduced by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, affirms the principle that parents want and know what is best for their children. Enhanced by the addition of an amendment (LB531) from Sen. Tom Briese, LB364 in its current form includes $10 million in tax credits to incentivize donations to support early childhood education and scholarships for children from low-income families.

For more and more working parents, access to early childhood education has become a pressing need.

In fact, 91% of Nebraska counties don’t have sufficient capacity to meet the current demandsm according to Voices for Children. With the passage of LB364, more early childcare centers can open, expand or enhance the services they provide.

Expanding options in early childcare will help set more students up for success, but what about after the age of 5?

There is no doubt that Nebraska offers a great educational option in our public schools, but just like childcare or higher education, one size does not fit all. While some families have the good fortune of being zoned for the right public school or can afford the private education they want, many low-income families are not so lucky.

As principal of a parochial school, my colleagues and I did all we could to provide scholarship opportunities to families who need the help, but inevitably there are families who either can’t enroll in in our schools or can’t afford to return.

While 47 other states offer some form of school choice, sadly in Nebraska it appears educational opportunity is available only to those who can afford it. This is unjust. All parents have a fundamental right to choose the educational environment that is best for their kids. It is the responsibility of government to help protect that right.

The Opportunity Scholarships Act will give more parents the opportunity to send their child to a school that best fits their needs through a scholarship tax credit program. Programs like this for low-income families have already been established in 18 other states. They have been shown to save state money and improve educational outcomes in both public and private schools.

Investing in more options for families in need of early childhood education or care with a tax credit program is something that many lawmakers can get behind. But when it comes to giving low-income families more options for K-12 education, opponents of LB364 reject providing the same or similar legislation. Why the inconsistency? A parent’s desire to do what is best for their children has not changed, but the politics have.

Nebraska’s achievement gaps say it all: Disadvantaged kids and underserved populations are hurt most when we do not expand educational options. It is time to level the playing the field and let all kids have the same chance at success. It is time to empower all parents to choose what is best for their children’s education.

It is time for the Nebraska Legislature to put the educational needs of Nebraska’s parents and students before politics and pass LB364.

Jeremy Ekeler is associate director of education policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference. He lives in Lincoln.

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