School finance review commission clears first round

A commission would conduct an in-depth review of Nebraska public elementary and secondary school financing under a bill advanced from general file May 6.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer
Sen. Wendy DeBoer

LB132, as introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, would create a 16-member school finance review commission within the state Department of Education.

The commission would examine methods of financing public schools that would provide equitable educational opportunities across the state and offer alternatives to a heavy reliance on property taxes.

DeBoer said the Legislature has not been able to agree on how to solve that central problem. A balanced commission that includes all stakeholders could help lawmakers break the impasse, she said.

“Getting more information, working towards consensus with more stakeholders in the room at the same time, looking for new solutions — how can that hurt?” DeBoer said.

Among other subjects, the commission would examine options for funding public prekindergarten services, college-readiness and career-readiness programs and the costs and resources necessary to meet the needs of students in poverty and those with limited English proficiency.

The commission would complete a preliminary report by November 2022 and a final report with recommendations on maintaining adequate and equitable public school funding by Dec. 1, 2022.

After completing its report, the commission would review, make recommendations on and report on progress toward educational goals established by the Legislature and the department. It also would review implementation of the state’s school funding formula and the commission’s recommendations.

Finally, beginning in 2024 and ending in 2030, the commission would make biennial reports to the governor, State Board of Education and the Legislature on the adequacy of school funding sources.

An Education Committee amendment would change the preliminary report’s completion date to November 2021. The final report would be submitted by Dec. 1, 2021.

The amendment also would add five members to the commission, including three senators. DeBoer introduced an amendment to the committee amendment, adopted 28-10, that would add a fourth.

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, chairperson of the Education Committee, supported the bill. She said lawmakers have tried many times to reform school finance but are divided on how to solve the problem.

“We point fingers, we degrade, we fight with each other, and we do not get anywhere because we lack trust,” she said.

Walz said she did not see the harm in assembling a diverse, objective group to study the issue and recommend solutions.

Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas also supported LB132, saying it would give the Legislature up-to-date data on school finance that it could use to make policy decisions. Whatever the commission recommends, he said, the Legislature would decide which changes, if any, to implement.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson also supported the proposal but said he was skeptical that it would succeed. Several attempts to reduce the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public schools and more fairly distribute state aid to rural districts have failed in recent years, he said.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston opposed the bill, saying school finance reform could be the subject of an interim study.

“We should be able to find the answers without putting commissions together,” she said.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene said the commission’s membership, as proposed in the original bill, would be weighted heavily toward the education community. That likely would result in a recommendation to increase school funding without also limiting the amount of property taxes schools could collect, he said.

“If you think you’re going to get property tax relief out of this or fair funding or accountability on the spending, guess again,” Groene said.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said she was concerned that education groups would influence commission members, many of whom might lack detailed knowledge of the state’s school funding formula.

Linehan said a commission that includes members of the Revenue, Education and Appropriations committees would have the knowledge and experience necessary to create a proposal that could garner enough support to pass.

“I don’t think we need to go outside the chamber to address this issue,” she said. “I think it’s our job.”

DeBoer said she was open to including only senators on the commission and would work with Linehan and others to amend the bill on the second round of debate.

In expectation of upcoming changes, Walz encouraged lawmakers to vote against the committee amendment. It was not adopted on a vote of 1-35.

Senators then voted 37-5 to advance LB132 to select file.

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