Will Nebraska State Senators Prevent Low-Income and Working Class Families from Enjoying the Same Opportunities They Themselves Enjoyed?
Many Nebraska state senators have personally benefited from a private school education. Their parents decided that a private school education was right for them, and many of them have made the same decision for their own children.
Such a decision is not a rebuke of the public school system; it’s simply a personal decision based on a variety of factors such as natural strengths and challenges, curriculum preferences, learning style, educational goals, family traditions, and more.
As the legislature debates LB295 today, many people are wondering if the senators who personally benefited from private education will vote to prevent poor children from accessing these same opportunities. Or will they extend educational freedom to those who are not privileged enough to have education options?
Burke Harr attended one of the state’s elite private schools, Creighton Prep. The school currently offers 19 AP courses and has a student-to-faculty ratio of 13:1. Harr’s prestigious education has served him well; he went on to attend St. Thomas University and Notre Dame law school, both private schools supported in part by public dollars. Hopefully, he’ll recognize that low-income children deserve access to the kinds of options he has enjoyed.
Adam Morfeld attended St. Teresa’s Parish School in Lincoln, a small, tight-knit Catholic school currently serving approximately 300 students in the city he represents. Some students thrive in smaller school settings with traditional discipline, school uniforms, and religious instruction. Hopefully, Senator Morfeld will recognize that some low-income children would thrive in the school environment his family was fortunate enough to access for him.
Sara Howard attended Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha. Duchesne focuses on college prep, and traditionally, 100% of the graduates go on to attend 4-year universities and colleges. Many low-income parents in Nebraska would love to be able to send their children to a school with such a focus and such a track record. Hopefully, Senator Howard will vote to extend her privileges to others.
Lynne Walz chose to send her children to Archbishop Bergan Catholic School in Fremont. This school prides itself on “recognizing the individual learning styles and abilities of each student.” With a student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1, it’s very possible to do so. This is the kind of attention and focus that many parents would like for their children. Hopefully, Senator Walz will vote for education freedom for low-income parents because she knows how important it was for her own family.
Dan Quick sent his children to Grand Island Central Catholic. It’s the only school in Grand Island that offers foreign languages in middle school, and it also offers a variety of other innovative courses including AP, dual-credit, distance learning, and tech prep. Hopefully, Senator Quick will understand that he’s not the only parent who would love to be able to access these options for his children. And his children aren’t the only ones who just get one shot at their K-12 educations.
It will be interesting to see in the debate today how many senators will send the message to low-income Nebraskans that school choice is “for me but not for thee.” Here’s to hoping that today is the day Nebraska shows its commitment to equal opportunity for all children. It’s time.
Thankfully, every child in America today has an opportunity to go to school. We could describe this opportunity with a pair of shoes. Shoes help people to go places, and education does the same thing.
If an education opportunity is like a pair of shoes, then every child in Nebraska has at least one pair of shoes in his or her closet. Most low-income and middle-income children have only one pair of shoes in their closets: public education. Fortunately, these shoes fit most kids. They’re able to put them on, feel comfortable, and get where they want to go.
But what if this one pair of shoes doesn’t fit very well? Or what if the one pair of shoes in the closet isn’t appropriate for the places the student wants to go?
Wealthy children in Nebraska have several pairs of shoes in their closets, represented by multiple education opportunities. Since their parents can afford other options (private school, homeschool, online courses, etc.), it’s much more likely that they’ll be able to find a pair of shoes that fits well.
LB295 puts more pairs of shoes in the closets of low- and middle-income children. One educator recently criticized LB295 by suggesting that it wouldn’t put all options within reach. For example, she said, perhaps what the student really wants is to go to Creighton Prep, but it’s too far for his parents to drive. This is like arguing that if a child can’t have a closetful of shoes, he should only have one pair. It’s hard to conceive of a situation in which people would rather have no choices at all than to have 2 or 3 options at their disposal.
In most of the country, all children (wealthy to poverty-stricken) have several pairs of shoes in their closets. In some places, kids have dozens of pairs to choose from between public schools, private schools, charter schools, and online schools). Yet here in Nebraska, the education establishment is still insisting that everyone wear the same pair, whether it fits or not.
They should rest assured that even if parents are given more pairs to choose from, most kids will still happily put on their pair of public school shoes and be confident that it will take them where they want to go. For those whose toes are squished or who need a different style, though, it’s time to offer a few more pairs. It’s time to recognize the diverse needs and dreams of Nebraska’s students. Let’s give all of them, not just the wealthy ones, a chance to run.
PRESS RELEASE: Senator Lou Ann Linehan and Education Choice ProponentsPromote State Taxpayer Savings Fiscal Study
An independent fiscal analysis released today demonstrates that scholarship tax credit legislation would pay for itself over time and, if amended, would achieve permanent net state savings within two years. The study was conducted by Nebraska School Finance Strategies (NSFS) and follows nationally-recommended best-practices in determining the LB295’s fiscal impact on Nebraska.
“Eighteen other states are already showing that tax credit scholarships create a lifetime of better opportunities for children from low- and middle-income families, and are a proven fiscal and economic policy success,” said Nicole Fox, Director of Government Relations for the Platte Institute for Economic Research. “This study shows that as the number of Nebraska students receiving charitable support through Opportunity Scholarships grows, the savings to the State of Nebraska would grow as well.”
LB295, introduced by Senator Jim Smith of Papillion and prioritized by Senator Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, provides for private school scholarships for low-income and working-class students. It does so by enacting a tax credit for donations to nonprofit scholarship granting organizations. LB295 is expected to be debated during the week of March 19th.
Under an amendment (AM1418) adopted by the Revenue Committee, LB295 would enact a dollar-for-dollar tax credit with an initial $2 million annual aggregate credit cap. The NSFS study reveals that this would achieve a temporary net savings of at least $633,200 within two years, and pay for itself over time.
Another proposed amendment (AM2071), would lower the tax credit per donation to 75 percent—allowing more contributions and, as a result, more scholarships before exhausting the annual tax credit. According to the fiscal study, this amendment would achieve a permanent net savings of more than $2 million in two years, and a permanent net savings of $3 million in the first three years. The savings would continue every year. This translates into $1.43 saved for every $1 in tax credits spent.
“When we make policy decisions in the legislature, we must use best practices. This fiscal study demonstrates what we already know through common sense: scholarship tax credit policies save the state money. They also benefit kids. It’s a win-win for Nebraska families and taxpayers,” said Senator Linehan.
As recommended by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the NSFS study analyzes key factors in assessing the cost savings of the tax-credit scholarship legislation. These factors include the percentage of participants who would have otherwise attended public schools, the enrollment capacity of accessible private schools, and the average cost of tuition in private schools versus the average cost-per-pupil in public schools. Similar best practices are not offered by the state legislature’s fiscal office.
The NSFS fiscal study finds LB295 would save the state nearly $5 million in TEEOSA spending in the first two years, anticipating that approximately 93% of first-time scholarship recipients would otherwise enroll in public schools. These students could begin filling the nearly 14,000 available seats in K-12 private schools across Nebraska.
Tom Venzor, Executive Director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said, “Private schools in Nebraska currently educate around 39,000 students across Nebraska. It is estimated that these schools save Nebraska taxpayers around $450 million dollars per year in education spending. Private schools are ready and willing to continue serving more children across the state.”
“The LCMS Lutheran nonpublic schools in Nebraska support LB295. We support, as the study notes, that a fiscally responsible move to adjust the tax credit percentage to 75% creates a great savings for our state. That savings can be reinvested in public education. It could also be used to provide further relief of the heavy tax burden on Nebraskans,” said Bob Ziegler, Executive for Education and Youth Ministries, Nebraska District – Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). “Many of the LCMS schools across the nation participate in some type of education choice and it has proven to be beneficial for all concerned. Education choice is good for all Nebraskans!”
Today, tax-credit scholarship programs exist in 18 other states. Numerous independent studies confirm that such policies achieve a net state savings. For example, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue, Iowa’s tax-credit scholarship program achieves net state savings of about $12 million annually. Since Iowa’s program started in 2006, it is estimated that tax-credit scholarships have saved Iowa at least $280 million—$2 in state savings for every $1 of tax credit. The Florida Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reports that the Florida scholarship tax credit program saved $1.49 in state revenue for every $1 of tax credits.
Representing parents of Nebraska public and private school children, Deb Portz of School Choice Lincoln said, “It is time for Nebraska to incorporate proven best practices with the fiscal and academic improvement innovations that other states have already tested with their tax credit scholarship programs.”
“The research confirms what Nebraskans already know, that school choice creates positive contributions for our communities. Legislators have the opportunity to improve the lives of students by providing greater access to education options that best fit the child’s needs, all while spending no new general fund dollars or reducing funding for traditional public schools,” said Brad Stevens, Regional Director of Americans for Prosperity. “When creative solutions are available that can significantly improve the quality of life for Nebraska’s students, state senators have no excuse but to act and support LB 295.”
Across the country, scholarship tax credit programs serve over 270,000 students. Education choice policies, like LB295, lift the financial burden that prevents many families from choosing the education that best suits their children’s needs.
“It is time for Nebraska legislators to put parents and children’s educational needs first. Parents desire to send their children to a school where they learn best. Tax credit scholarships are a tremendous way to actually provide this opportunity for the children who need it most,” said Karen Bowling, Executive Director of Nebraska Family Alliance.
Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy for EdChoice, said: “Tax-credit scholarships empower families with educational choices so their children can find the right opportunity that meets their learning needs. The scholarships are a constitutional and fiscally responsible way to make sure more students can access the educational options they deserve.”
The Nebraska School Finance Strategies, Inc., offers economic consulting services in the field of public education finance, with special emphasis on the analysis of the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Act (TEEOSA), Nebraska’s primary formula for distributing financial aid to kindergarten through twelfth grade public schools. The lead analyst of the fiscal study, William Scheideler, brings nearly a decade of experience in providing economic research of public education for Nebraska state government. He holds a master’s degree in applied economics from Iowa State University and has over 30 years of experience developing applied economic, demographic and tax analysis.
The teachers unions are saying that Nebraska cannot afford $2 million in statewide tax credits to help low-income students get scholarships for K-12 private school tuition; meanwhile, OPS (a single district, mind you) passed a measure to issue over $300 million in pension obligation bonds, which actuaries estimate will pull nearly $21 million out of the classroom every year to pay bondholders due to the district’s out-of-control pension debt. Plus, state taxpayers are annually spending over $1 billion for K-12 state per-pupil funding (this doesn’t include local property taxes for local school districts).
In other words, the Nebraska teachers unions are willing to take hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars out of classrooms for the ill-managed pensions of a single district, but they’re not willing to consider a $2 million program that goes directly to classroom learning for low-income children across the state. And when you consider that within a few years the $2 million will actually be saving the state money, it’s inconceivable that they’re trying to block this program.
Unfortunately, that’s not where the hypocrisy ends. Let’s take a look at the union rhetoric surrounding this issue. It helps us to understand the unfathomable.
This morning I wrote some of our Nebraska state senators to express support for LB295, Opportunity Scholarships, and I got three replies back. One was non-committal, one was very positive, and one included many false statements, including the following:
This senator also emphasized that she personally benefited from private education (as did Senator Harr who is threatening to filibuster the bill), and she also recognized that the legislature has a responsibility to make sure a free public education is available to all children in the state. Yet she didn’t recognize the fact that private schools in the state are currently saving taxpayers roughly half a billion dollars per year. For all the whining and crying over $2 million in tax-credits, TEEOSA is currently costing taxpayers over $1 billion every year.
In conclusion, we’re spending over $1 billion each year (on a state level alone) for public education that is getting poor results (only about half of the students are reaching reading proficiency). LB295 would help low-income children in failing schools to access additional education opportunities that are currently out of their financial reaches. In addition to helping these children, Nebraska taxpayers would save money in the long run, and public schools would benefit from increased per-pupil funds and standards-raising competition.
How can the unions rationalize their opposition to LB295? It’s unfathomable.
Current Nebraska law discriminates against students who are not served well by the public school system. Other states are recognizing that in order to best serve K-12 students, the students need to be funded equally, regardless of their abilities, interests, and challenges.
For instance, in Colorado, Republicans Lang Sias and Owen Hill and Democrats Brittany Pettersen and Angela Williams sponsored a bill that provides equal funding for charter schools. Senator Angela Williams said that the measure “first and foremost provides equitable funding for all Colorado’s children no matter what type of school they attend.”
Did you catch that? The funding is for the children. For the children.
If a state values each of its citizens equally, it only makes sense that each student would be equally supported in his or her education. And yet, in Nebraska, only the students who fit in at certain schools are supported in their educations. Most states are now offering equal funding to children who learn best in public charter schools. In Nebraska, we don’t even have poor funding for children who learn best in public charter schools. Those kids get no funding at all.
I was making phone calls recently to talk to Nebraskans about education opportunity, and one mother shared a heartbreaking story. She has two young adult sons who have both graduated from high school. They’re highly intelligent (the one who was tested has an IQ of 145), but they never quite fit in at their local public schools. They sometimes had trouble focusing, and they were restless with the curriculum.
This mother noticed that her friends who were employed by the education system seemed to know how to get their children what they needed. They knew which strings to pull to get their children into certain programs. She asked lots of questions but never received helpful answers, and she grew increasingly frustrated as the years went by.
Her sons both lost interest in school because their needs weren’t being met. One of them is now working at Home Depot and the other isn’t sure what to do with his life. “The world is deprived of some great minds,” this mother said to me, “because I couldn’t get them the educations they needed.”
More specifically, Nebraska is deprived of those great minds. I asked this mother what would have been helpful to her when her kids were younger. She said she needed more options, and she needed information about how to navigate a system that seemed confusing and not concerned about her children’s specific needs.
Nebraska’s traditional public schools work very well for some children. But they don’t work for everyone. And these children should not be consigned to a limited future just because some people think everyone should learn the same way.
As it stands today, there are tens of thousands of children in Nebraska who are being educated outside the public school system. For many different reasons, their parents have decided that their children need to be taught in a different manner. There are other parents whose children are currently in the public school system even though it's not a good fit for them--and many of these children are not thriving. The woman I talked to on the phone is not the only mother in Nebraska who borders on tears when she talks about her frustrations regarding her kids’ educations.
This is what happens when systems are more important than people. People get lost and forgotten.
At this point, the teachers’ unions and Stand for Schools are actually testifying against tax-credit scholarships, which don’t take a single penny away from Nebraska K-12 funding since they’re funded by private donations (although from the rhetoric you'd think private school administrators were raiding the public school funds). These people feel so threatened by any sort of competition that they are trying to prevent low-income children from receiving scholarships to go to private schools. They’re the people blocking the doors of opportunity for kids in Nebraska. I wish they would listen to the stories I’ve heard from frustrated Nebraska moms and dads.
We’re very far behind the rest of the country when it comes to offering equal support to all of the children in our state. Hopefully, we can begin taking meaningful steps to end this discrimination.
We'd do well to remember what Democratic State Senator Angela Williams so wisely said: we need to provide "equitable funding for all [Nebraska's] children no matter what type of school they attend."
With Nebraska School Choice Week in the spotlight, people are talking. Many of these conversations are interesting and productive, but unfortunately, racist remarks surface as well. One Facebook commenter said, “Charter schools are not public schools by the way. There is little if any over site [sic] and just because you throw in a picture of some black kids does not mean those schools are better than public education.”
Comments like these unveil racist attitudes that help to explain why Nebraska has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation. Such comments attempt to squash the voices of certain students and their parents and treat them as if their opinions don’t matter. Why were so many minority students at the Capitol on Thursday? The following tables help to explain.
Clearly, Nebraska’s public schools struggle to successfully educate minority children. That’s one reason that parents of minority children have sought other options. Unlike parents in most other states, however, Nebraska parents have few, if any, alternatives to traditional public schools.
This is because the education establishment has clamped down on educational freedom. They have spread lies about public charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, private schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice because they want to retain all of the taxpayer funding and power for themselves, even if that means some students get lost along the way. They outright reject forms of education--such as public charter schools--that have narrowed the achievement gap in other states. This is systemic racism. The Nebraska education system (district administrators, the state board of education, teachers’ union leadership, and even district board members) actually lobbies against the legalization of forms of education that are proven to help minority students.
In a 2016 address to the American Federation for Children, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) touted the fact that over 40 percent of the kids in Newark were attending charter schools. He said, “So for me, this is not an academic discussion anymore. This, to me, is families that I know, neighborhoods. I’ve seen the kind of transformation that could be made. I see how kids who have no history of college in their families suddenly had the arc of their families’ trajectory changed, as they’ve been liberated from what I call the imprisonment of institutions of failure, and now have pathways to institutions of excellence, all the way through college.”
“We all have rights to equal opportunity. We are the last generation, fighting the last big battle to make true on that -- that a child born anywhere in America, from any parents, a child no matter what their race or religion or socio-economic status should have that pathway, should have that equal opportunity, and there is nothing more fundamental to that than education. That is the great liberation.”
The Nebraska Loves Public Schools crowd isn’t interested in the great liberation. In response to dismal ACT scores in Omaha Public Schools, another Facebook poster said, “Do you think all kids in OPS are college bound?” There’s a lot packed behind this statement: low expectations, excuses, and a lack of concern for students as individuals, to start with. So let’s take it a bit farther.
It’s up to each graduate to decide what to do with his or her future, but it’s a travesty that nearly all of the students at some Nebraska high schools will have to pay for remedial college courses out of their own pockets if they’re going to move on to higher education. That is a huge stumbling block to overcome, and many families simply will not be able to afford to pay for what the public schools were tasked (and paid) to do. So do we think that all kids in OPS are college bound? Of course not. Do we think that all kids in OPS should be prepared to handle entry level college courses if that’s the course they pursue? Absolutely. Low-income, minority students at schools in other states can do it. Nebraska kids have as much potential as kids in other states. They just don’t have the freedom to choose schools that will respect their potential.
Former NYC City Council Democrat Eva Moskowitz said this week, “Currently, more than 3 million children attend public charter schools in the U.S. They serve a greater percentage of poor minority students than traditional public schools, and the empirical evidence of more than a dozen gold-standard studies indicates they are producing significant academic gains for these students.”
But the Nebraska education establishment wants to bar these opportunities from students in our great state. It’s time for our state legislators to stand up for those children whose voices were heard in the Capitol this week. It’s time to offer them the “great liberation” that children around the country are already experiencing. Reject the racism of a system that fights tooth and nail to keep their promising futures trapped in what Senator Cory Booker calls “the imprisonment of institutions of failure.”
Yes, we’re many years behind when it comes to education reform, but we can begin the journey toward equity and liberation during this legislative session by passing LB295, which would offer low-income students a way to access schools they could never have accessed before. Will Nebraska continue to shore up its education bureaucracy's tremendous power in 2018? Or will it choose to put the power over children’s futures back in the hands of their parents, where it belongs.
On November 27, 2017, the Lincoln Journal Star published an open letter signed by nearly 70 faculty of the University of Nebraska Lincoln. In this letter, faculty members make false statements about our organization and seem to entirely miss the point of the many recent concerns expressed by members of the community. This letter addresses both the false statements and the real issues at hand.
December 1, 2017
To Whom It May Concern,
In “An Open Letter from University of Nebraska Faculty on Recent Attacks on Our Institution,” School Choice Lincoln was charged with “leverag[ing] a single campus interaction into a sustained attack on the University.” We would like to address the false statements about our organization and express our true concerns.
First of all, the letter alleges that “staff of anti-public-education nonprofits affiliated with Governor Ricketts, such as School Choice Lincoln, have leveraged [attacks against the university].” Our organization is not a non-profit, nor does it have staff. We are also not “anti-public-education.” Our own children currently attend or have attended public schools here in Lincoln. We are not affiliated with Governor Ricketts. We are simply an unfunded, grassroots group of parents and concerned citizens who advocate for expanding educational options, improving current educational options, and increasing transparency so parents are better able to make decisions regarding their children’s educations.
We focus most of our efforts on K-12 issues like reading proficiency and expanded educational options, but we occasionally comment on other issues, as individuals and as a group. Many members of the community have commented about the issues addressed in the Open Letter; we’re not sure why we have been singled out and named as “attackers.” And we’re also not sure how pointing out a problem that needs attention could be considered “an attack.” How can improvements be made if no one is willing to identify problems?
It may be helpful if we connect the dots between our work with K-12 education and our concerns regarding the University, specifically the English Department. In the past few years we have noticed changes in our high school students’ LPS English educations. Some of the teachers, especially the more recent college graduates, seem unusually focused on social justice. Students receive less instruction in classic literature and grammar and more instruction about identity politics and other social justice priorities. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with learning about social justice, it appears that essential academic skills like reading, writing, and critical thinking are being replaced by the teaching of political ideas and theories in required English classes. This substitution leaves students with gaping holes in their educations and a leftist ideological bent. Why should English curriculum be delivered with any sort of ideology?
When UNL English instructors caused a scene on campus earlier this fall, we took a closer look at what was going on in the department. The department’s mission statement and core values line up perfectly with the changes we have noticed in our kids’ high school English classes. This makes perfect sense: many of the LPS high school English teachers are graduates of the UNL English Department.
As parents, we feel it’s our duty to advocate for quality education for our children, and that’s why we have made comments (at times; not in a “sustained” manner as described in the letter) on social media regarding our concerns. More than anything, we want every department at the University of Nebraska to be strong, vibrant, and productive. We know that our community and our children depend on the strength of the University, and that’s why we care so much about it.
We are not a non-profit with staff conspiring with politicians to attack the University of Nebraska, as imagined by the English Department. We are concerned citizens who love our children and our community and want all of Nebraska’s students to have a solid academic foundation. How else will our young people compete in this ever-changing global economy?
We, the undersigned, fully support the University in its mission “to provide its citizens with the highest quality of post-secondary education.” Like many others who have vocalized concerns, we are invested members of the community who simply want the University to hold high standards for academics and to respect students in all their viewpoint diversity.
Thank you for your time.
Jane Raybould is irked. At least, that’s what she says in a recent campaign email sent to Nebraskans (see below).
Full of falsehoods, this email claims that there is an “ideological crusade against our education system” and a “national war on our public schools.” She says that she’s very proud of Nebraska’s public schools, and maybe that’s why she thinks all children should be forced to attend them.
Recent testing data has shown us that parents have cause to be concerned about their children’s educations. About half of 3rd through 8th graders scored proficient or above on the latest statewide standardized tests. Only half are proficient in reading? If ever there were a call for reform, this is it. And yet, here we have politicians like Jane Raybould lamenting not the fact that many children are functionally illiterate but the fact that reformers are asking good questions and making recommendations for improvements.
Raybould’s email is long on scare tactics and short on specifics. She vaguely mentions three bills in the legislature that she doesn’t like, but she doesn’t say what they are. Is she referring to LB 295 about tax-credit scholarships, which offers tax credits to individuals and businesses who donate money to scholarship funds for K-12 students who need scholarships to attend private schools? Public school funding is not touched by this program, but many students’ lives could be changed for the better. Ms. Raybould herself, who attended private Catholic school growing up, was a beneficiary of educational options. It's hard to understand why she would oppose a program that would allow low-income students to access the same options she herself enjoyed as a child.
Raybould isn’t the only person who is feeling irked. Here are a few other groups of people who are currently irked in Nebraska:
Not only are kids unique in their gifts and challenges, but they may also need different educational options at different points in their growing up years. When parents have many options to choose from, they’re more likely to find schools and resources to help their kids achieve their goals.
That was certainly the case for Makila Carter. When Makila was a 15-year-old sophomore in Madison, Wisconsin, her father passed away from lung cancer. At the time, she was attending a huge school (there were 1500 students in her freshman class). Makila said, “I had become dissociated from everyone and everything because I was just expected to go back to [a] huge school with thousands of other kids and present as if everything was ok in my life. No one asked if I was ok. My teachers weren’t engaging. Everyone just thought I had missed a lot of school that current semester and probably wouldn’t catch up. I came home that day and I told my mom that if I had to go back there I didn’t know what I would do.” Makila’s interest in learning was dwindling quickly.
Fortunately, Makila’s mother knew about a school that fit her daughter’s current needs: Shabazz City High School. Makila’s mother had been a student at Shabazz in the 60’s, and she thought it would be just the thing to rekindle Makila’s interest in life and learning.
One of the things Makila loved about Shabazz was that she had to apply, interview, and be accepted to the school. “If you were a bad apple or didn’t want to learn they didn’t want you there. Loved that,” she said. “Every kid that was there was there because they wanted to be and we were all in this together to make it through high school with the necessary tools to become high-functioning adults. A lot of my former classmates went to 4-year colleges and universities.”
It sounds great, but what what makes Malcolm Shabazz City High School so different from the school Makila previously attended? For one, Shabazz is much, much smaller. The school currently has 135 students. Its website says, “Shabazz is a choice alternative school. All of its 135 students choose to attend Shabazz--no one is forced to go to Shabazz.”
When asked to describe Shabazz, Makila said that it made her feel happy. “We were equals to the teachers, they allowed us to call them by their first names. A lot of the teachers who were there had been there for many years. My history teacher Jeff (his last name escapes me) was a student teacher when my mom was a student there. My mother spoke of him fondly. He remembered her too. They taught us in a way to make everything relevant.”
Unconventional teaching and hands-on learning are several of the hallmarks of Shabazz. Makila said, “We had a history class called the Life and Times of Bob Dylan. History class was started every day with a song from Dylan and we would have to try and decode the song and pair it to what was happening in that moment in time. Everything was outside of the box. There was another teacher who taught women’s history classes. Classes often started or ended with a debate. Everyone took a lot of notes, but it was because the teachers cared enough to give a different way to teach.”
On Malcolm Shabazz City High School’s student-created website, you can read about Shabazz/Community Service-Learning Partnerships. These are service projects that Shabazz students and staff work on to help their community. They include art projects, poetry guilds, journalism projects with Wisconsin Public Radio, games with elementary students, trail repair for the local arboretum, voter registration canvassing, and rebuilding computers for families who can’t afford to purchase one on their own.
Makila said, “I took a cinematography class and an elective class where I learned to build computers and we would fix the computers in the school.” This kind of hands-on, real-world experience instills confidence in students and helps them to discover skills and interests they didn’t know they had.
When asked about how her life would be different now if her mother hadn’t exercised her right to choose her school, Makila said, “I don’t want to think about where I would be. It wouldn’t have ended well for me if I didn’t find a place to feel safe like I did at Shabazz. My mother, who went to the same school decades earlier, probably wouldn’t have completed school either.”
Makila noted that Shabazz is arts-based, and she is artistic herself. That’s part of what made it such a great fit for her. “Not every child learns the same way,” she said. “Everything we did was linked to some type of artistic outlet. I feel like that helped us absorb more.”
Is Shabazz City High School the best place for every student to attend high school? Of course not. Other students have different interests, learning styles, and desires. But it was a perfect fit for Makila and her classmates. When a variety of schools are available, more students will find a place that feels like home, and more students will find success like Makila Carter did.
Many thanks to Makila for the interview and her insight into educational opportunity.
Last week, the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing issued a press release in which they question comments made in the wake of a visit from the U.S. Secretary of Education. In particular, the press release quotes LPS superintendent Steve Joel as saying, "Nebraska is a choice state. Students can attend any school they want to -- and do."
The NCDHH knows this isn't true. Members of the task force have attended IEP meetings in which parents with children who are deaf or hard of hearing have requested to send their children to a residential school setting at the Iowa School for the Deaf, and they've been told they can't go. In fact, according to the press release, these parents have been "told to utilize the Individuals with Disabilities Act appeals process in an attempt to convince education officials that a residential school setting, or a different school of their choice, is best for their child." The press release asks the question, "If parents have to utilize the due process appeal system to obtain the same right of 'school choice' as children without disabilities, is that true 'choice' after all?"
Why don't these parents request to send their children to a school for the deaf or hard of hearing right here in Nebraska? The Nebraska School for the Deaf closed in the 90's, and nothing has replaced it.
If a family with a deaf or hard of hearing child lived in St. Paul, the child could attend Metro Deaf School, a free public charter school providing a bilingual and interdisciplinary curriculum. Parents living in Florida could use a tax-credit scholarship to send their deaf or hard of hearing child to Blossom Montessori School for the Deaf, a private school that uses a combination of Montessori-style teaching and visually oriented curriculum. Parents in Arizona can use an ESA (Education Savings Account) to pay for tuition for schools for the deaf or hard or hearing as well as for private tutors, therapies, and other services their children need.
So it's no wonder that parents are leaving Nebraska in order to access the educational resources their children need. Children in Nebraska do not have access to any of the opportunities mentioned above, and that's why Nebraska is ranked #50 in the Parent Power Index.
Until this upcoming session, Nebraska legislators have not even been willing to discuss expanding educational opportunity for children in this state. Instead, education reform bills have been stopped in committee by senators who are beholden to the teachers union, district administrators, Nebraska Loves Public Schools, Stand for Schools, and other organizations that are more concerned about maintaining control over systems than they are about providing opportunities for individual children to succeed.
The NCDHH is a state agency with 13 employees and 9 board members. They have offices in Lincoln, Omaha, North Platte, and other locations. They hear the stories of children across the state, and they know what they're talking about. In their recent press release, the NCDHH board states that parents have been denied requests to send their children to the Iowa School for the Deaf because "their current school provides a better choice." This attitude that administrators know better than parents is the reason families are leaving Nebraska in search of freedom and better opportunities for their children.
Nebraska legislators have a chance this upcoming session to offer meaningful opportunities for the parents and children of this state. They can approve LB295, a measure that would offer tax credits to individuals or organizations that contribute to K-12 scholarship funds. With a scholarship, perhaps some of these parents referenced by the NCDHH could afford to send their children to schools that offer the opportunities they're looking for.
NCDHH Board Chairman and retired educator at the New Mexico School for the Deaf Margie Propp said, "It is time for the deaf or hard of hearing children to have the same right to choose a school the same as their hearing peers."