Session Review: Education

While much of the education policy focus in 2011 was on state aid to schools, senators also passed legislation requiring minimum standards for postsecondary education institutions, revising civic education requirements and creating educational opportunities for military children.

State aid funding

Changes to the state aid formula for education resulted in a decrease of $13 million in total funding from the current fiscal year to the next.

The decreased funding was in response to the state’s projected budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion coupled with a loss of one-time federal stimulus funds in the last biennium.

LB235, introduced by York Sen. Greg Adams, provides schools $822 million for fiscal year 2011-12 and $880 million for FY2012-13. The bill, passed 41-2, calls for:

• allowing school districts with unused budget authority to increase spending by 2 percent of their prior year expenditures;
• eliminating the allowable growth rate for FY2011-12 and increasing the rate to 0.5 percent in FY2012-13, which is 1 percent less than previously authorized for FY2012-13;
• eliminating the additional percentage in the cost growth factor;
• setting the local effort rate to $1.0395 for FY2011-12 and FY2012-13;
• reducing the averaging adjustment and needs stabilization thresholds by 5 percent for FY2011-12;
• reducing the allocated income tax by $21 million for FY2011-12 and FY2012-13;
• expanding the comparison groups by 10 larger and 10 smaller districts; and
• subtracting property tax refunds from district resources beginning with FY2012-13.

The amended bill contained provisions originally introduced by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery as LB148, which excludes lobbying expenses from the definition of general fund operating expenditures.

Also included in the bill are provisions of LB273, originally introduced by Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas, to include converted contract students as option students and exclude receipts; and LB287, originally introduced by Adams, which would include early childhood in the formula’s summer school allowance beginning in FY2012-13.

Postsecondary education

Adams introduced two other bills related to postsecondary education.

LB59 distributes the total amount of state aid among the state’s six community colleges according to a new formula for FY2011-12 and FY2012-13:

• 28.27 percent for the Southeast Community College Area;
• 26.51 percent for the Metropolitan Community College Area;
• 14.04 percent for the Northeast Community College Area, with 0.1 percent of that amount going to the Nebraska Indian Community College and 0.2 percent to the Little Priest Tribal College;
• 13.27 percent for the Western Community College Area;
• 9.05 percent for the Mid-Plains Community College Area; and
• 8.86 percent for the Central Community College Area.

The bill passed 49-0.

LB637 requires the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education to establish minimum standard requirements and levels of operations, establish rules and regulations, review applications for postsecondary institutions and investigate violators of the bill. If the commission finds that a postsecondary institution has violated the established rules and regulations, the institution’s authorization to operate could be suspended or revoked.

Any private postsecondary career school or institution that is regulated by a federal agency is exempt from the bill.

LB637, passed 48-0, also:

• includes provisions from LB372, an Adams bill to enable the University of Nebraska to offer certificates in additional fields upon approval from the commission if the preponderance of the courses comprising the certificate are above associate-degree level;
• includes provisions from LB58, an Adams bill to require a study of the need for uniform policies and practices regarding dual-enrollment courses and career academies; and
• allocates $160,000 to the state Department of Education for a three-year pilot project in participating school districts for the administration of a standard college admission test for 11th grade students beginning in FY2011-12.

Other bills

Civics education requirements, educational opportunities for military children, focus and magnet school provisions, school energy efficiency projects and blood lead testing requirements for students were among the education bills passed by lawmakers session.

LB544, introduced by Boys Town Sen. Rich Pahls, requires that high school civics courses include students’ active participation in improving one’s community and the practice of civil discourse between opposing interests.

The bill passed 42-0.

LB575, introduced by Bellevue Sen. Scott Price, eases the transition of moving to the state for children whose parents are in the military.

Passed 43-0, the bill permits children of military parents to:

• enroll in school when they arrive and provide a hand-carried record;
• have 30 days to obtain required immunizations;
• continue schooling at the same grade level they were in prior to transferring;
• participate in athletics and extracurricular programs, even if they are in the middle of the school year;
• have additional excused absences if a parent is preparing for or returning from deployment;
• have a power of attorney as guardianship; and
• complete graduation requirements and receive a high school diploma from their previous school if they transferred in the middle of their senior year.

The bill also requires the department to create and oversee a council that would coordinate the state’s participation in the Interstate Compact of Educational Opportunity for Military Children. The department will be allowed to accept devises, donations or bequests to pay for costs associated with administering the compact.

Senators passed a bill that allows multiple-member school districts to collaborate on focus and magnet schools and programs.

Under LB558, introduced by Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a multi-district focus or magnet school or program that participates in a diversity plan could be eligible for a focus school and program allowance.

The bill also requires school districts collaborating on a focus or magnet school or program to form a joint entity to assign legal, financial and academic responsibilities as well as assign students who reside in nonparticipating school districts to districts that participate in such schools or programs.

LB558 was passed 42-0 and will take effect July 1, 2012, with funding for FY2012-13 coming from lottery proceeds through the Education Innovation Fund.

Senators passed four bills introduced by the committee that contained additional budget reductions.

LB331, passed 46-0, removes a requirement that the educational television network of Nebraska have two production facilities. The bill also eliminates the requirement that one of the facilities be located in Omaha.

LB332, passed 46-0, eliminates the $40 per diem for members of the Board of Educational Lands and Funds beginning Oct. 1, 2011. Members will continue to be paid necessary traveling expenses incurred while performing board business.

LB333, passed 44-0, removes the statutory requirement for schools to have a student achievement coordinator, estimated to save $103,000 over the next two fiscal years.

Additionally, the bill transfers the following programs to the lottery fund for financial support:

• Early Childhood Education grants;
• high ability learner grants;
• an integrated information system; and
• the Center for Student Leadership and Extended Learning.

LB334, passed 45-0, makes other cost-saving changes at the University of Nebraska, including:

• eliminating an aquaculturist position;
• repealing a requirement that the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources employ a poultry pathologist;
• limiting eligibility for the Nebraska Optometry Education Assistance Contract Program to students who participated in or were accepted into the program in the 2010-11 academic year;
• making operation of the Nebraska Business Development Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and university and state college campus small business development centers permissive rather than mandatory;
• eliminating a requirement that the university operate an agricultural lab in Box Butte County; and
• making the university’s request for general fund support for the Nebraska Safety Center permissive rather than mandatory.

The committee also heard testimony on a bill that would have repealed the in-state tuition rates at Nebraska’s universities and colleges for children of illegal immigrants who are not lawfully present in the United States. Introduced by Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen, LB657 was indefinitely postponed by the committee on a 6-1 vote.

Vetoed bills

Two education bills that were passed by the Legislature sustained vetoes from the governor.

LB283, introduced by Malcolm Sen. Ken Haar, would have included energy efficiency projects in the $0.052 levy school districts receive for the Qualified Capital Purpose Undertaking Fund (QCPUF).

QCPUF allows expenditures for environmental hazards, accessibility barriers, life safety code violations, indoor air quality and mold abatement. Under the bill, energy efficiency projects would have included:

• inspection and testing regarding energy usage;
• maintenance to reduce, control or eliminate energy usage; or
• restoration or replacement of material in new or existing school grounds or buildings that would reduce or eliminate energy usage.

Senators approved the bill on a 27-19 vote. Gov. Dave Heineman subsequently vetoed the measure, saying LB283 could result in “reduced voter oversight” in projects that could result in property tax increases. Bond issues for energy efficiency projects should not be outside of the levy limits, he said, unless approved by a vote of the people.

The motion to override the governor’s veto fell six votes short, at 24-20, and the legislation was not enacted.

LB204, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brenda Council, would have required blood lead level testing of children prior to kindergarten enrollment. School districts would have been required to inform families prior to the date of school registration of the testing requirement.

The bill passed on a 30-12 vote. Calling it “overly broad,” the governor said in his veto message that the bill likely would result in the testing of children who are not at risk of elevated blood lead levels.

The vote to override the veto fell nine votes short, at 21-20.

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