Lincoln Loses Without School Choice

January 17, 2019

This was an opinion article submitted by Deb Portz with School Choice Nebraska

Many low-income, racially diverse parents in our community just lost access to an education they know is best for their children. And when students and parents lose educational opportunity, our entire community loses.

At a November 18th meeting held at St. Mary’s Catholic Church (just north of the Capitol), parents listened to the dire financial situation facing three Catholic elementary schools in Lincoln: St. Mary’s, Blessed Sacrament, and Sacred Heart. These schools offer a private, faith-based education. A majority of the students attending these schools are not Catholic, and live in Lincoln’s highest poverty neighborhoods in households where English is not the primary language spoken. It was revealed that unless each school could raise more than $100,000 each year to cover educational expenses, there was a high likelihood that at least one of the schools would close.

That likelihood became a reality last week with the announcement from the Diocese of Lincoln that St. Mary’s Catholic School would close at the end of the current school year. This is a historical decision, as the Diocese of Lincoln has never closed a Catholic school in the city of Lincoln.

At the meeting, parents spoke about their desire to alleviate the dire financial situation. One parent offered to sell homemade tamales all year.  Another offered skills she was learning in her marketing class at Southeast Community College. St. Mary’s middle school math teacher, Frank McEntarffer, proposed an aggressive fundraising plan, and offered to donate half his annual salary to the school. St. Mary’s principal, Dr. Nina Beck, took questions from worried parents who knew they lacked the resources and options to maintain their first educational choice at St. Mary’s.

This situation breaks my heart.

For several years, I have volunteered at St. Mary’s. I have witnessed educational outcomes and lives be transformed. I have watched students embrace a unique math curriculum, the Ec3 Academy, which utilizes UNL engineering students as mentors to coach middle school students. St. Mary’s Ec3 students have gone to Pius and LPS high schools excelling ahead of their peers in math assessments. Most Ec3 students have a college-and-career-ready  ACT math score of 23 in the 8th grade. After the Ec3 curriculum was implemented at St. Mary’s, remedial math courses at Pius were eliminated, and students won statewide math competitions. Defying years of statewide results, minority achievement gaps in math were significantly reduced at St. Mary’s.

This has been accomplished with economic efficiency. The annual cost of education per student at St. Mary’s is less than half the amount taxpayers spend to educate a student in Lincoln Public Schools.  128 St. Mary’s students will now either enroll into LPS at the taxpayer’s expense or be consolidated into other Lincoln Catholic schools.  Neither will be the first educational choice for these children and parents.  And a school building will now sit empty, all while Lincoln taxpayers will continue spending incredible amounts of taxpayer resources to build more schools

The financial crisis these schools face is another reminder why Nebraska would benefit from school choice legislation. Private schools across Nebraska already save taxpayers nearly $400 million per year. And they do this while meeting and exceeding the educational standards of parents and state regulations.  Yet Nebraska has missed the opportunity to support families who want to choose schools like St. Mary’s by not adopting policies like scholarship tax credit legislation such as LB295 in the 2018 session. These programs provide a higher financial incentive to donors for funding scholarship assistance to low-income and working-class students. 18 states have adopted such programs—including our neighbors in Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas.  These programs serve over 250,000 children nationwide, while saving taxpayers $1 to $3 billion annually.

I believe we need to adequately fund our public schools and ensure their success. I also believe we need to invest in all kids in Nebraska, regardless of their educational choice. Data supports that school choice benefits everyone, including existing public and private schools in urban and rural areas. I invite you to review and see these very same benefits. And I urge our state senators and the Governor to adopt scholarship tax credit legislation this upcoming legislative session.


Deb Portz

School Choice Nebraska

Lincoln, Nebraska