Stand for Schools

Stand for Schools advocates announced bills Monday at the Capitol to benefit the state's public schools.

CHRIS DUNKER, Journal Star

Advocates of public education touted a slew of bills being pushed by state senators Monday, saying the programs would be an investment in the state's future economy and workforce.

A total of nine bills were highlighted by Stand for Schools during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda, targeting state and federal funds for special education, early childhood, career education, behavioral health and school nutrition programs across the state.

“Important investments don’t come for free, but the state’s budget is a reflection of its priorities,” said Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director of Stand for Schools, which organized Monday's rally. “These are the best investments we can make."

Those priorities include:

* A proposal by Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha would boost the reimbursement rate for costs associated with running special-education programs to 80 percent. In recent years, the state has reimbursed roughly 50 percent of the additional special-education costs accrued by districts. This year that reimbursement will top $224 million.

* Kolowski also introduced a bill (LB887) changing provisions of the state-aid formula allowing schools to include 100 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. Currently, schools can count 60 percent of their 4-year-old students in the state-aid formula, and no 3-year-olds. This would allow districts that don’t receive state equalization aid to receive support for early childhood programs.

* The Omaha senator said he would also push a bill introduced last year (LB575) establishing new funding sources for schools that create programs of excellence for students.

* He also proposed amending the Nebraska Constitution to lower the minimum age for children qualifying for free education from 5 years of age to 3.

* Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont will introduce a bill to provide mental and behavioral health support to school districts through Nebraska’s 19 Educational Service Units.

* Walz also introduced LB771 to provide students qualifying for free and reduced lunches under federal guidelines with free breakfast and lunch at no cost to the student.

* Sen. John McCollister of Omaha proposed a bill (LB770) to increase the income limit of Nebraskans participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to 160 percent of federal guidelines. That would bring more federal money to the state, he said.

* Sen. Adam Morfield of Lincoln said he will again push a bill (LB246) introduced last year that would allow school districts to levy funds to pay for after-school or weekend programs for students.

* Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said he will reintroduce a measure providing grants to employers and nonprofit companies to help prepare individuals for future employment.

Lobbying groups representing both public school teachers and public school boards across the state say investments in school districts will help grow Nebraska’s economy and reduce its reliance on agriculture commodity prices to fund state government.

John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, said growing need for state investment in the Department of Corrections and Medicaid have come at the expense of K-12 education, higher education and special education.

“All of the bills articulated today are part of developing a long-term vision for addressing the economy, job growth, revenue growth for the state and expenses, or the demand for things we don’t want to spend money on,” Spatz said.

The Nebraska State Education Association backed the proposals, saying the package of bills represents an investment in the state’s future.

“Teachers believe in making sure public schools work for every child,” said Jenni Benson, NSEA’s president. “This effort is designed to do just that, and we believe that legislators who are serious about lifting up our children and improving public schools will support the bills outlined today.”

Spatz urged Nebraskans to think about the proposed legislation the same way business owners think about new investments. There won’t be an overnight return, he said, but the right investments can change the way the state operates.

“What businesses do is look long-term, they invest in areas that are going to produce a rate of return,” he said. “That’s what we have to do in the state of Nebraska.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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