Nebraska’s school-aid increase is significant, but many challenges lie ahead |

Nebraska’s school-aid increase is significant, but many challenges lie ahead

John K. Hansen, President
Nebraska Farmers Union

The Nebraska state government’s two-year budget includes a hefty increase in aid to public schools. The aid total exceeds $1 billion for the first time and is the most since 2009-10, when Nebraska used federal stimulus dollars to boost the state support.

The aid boost took place even though some additional aid-formula changes — placed in the session’s main tax legislation — went down to defeat along with that tax bill.

There’s a general consensus among a wide range of senators that the state needs to take on a greater share of funding Nebraska’s public schools. Urban senators support the boost on general principle and because, as formulated in the new budget, their districts would receive increases. Rural senators argue strenuously that increased state aid can reduce pressure on school districts to raise property taxes.

State senators need to be mindful of some important complications and obligations, however. They must:

Understand and acknowledge the long-term difficulty of maintaining this funding level. Members of the Legislature, as well as school district leaders, mustn’t underestimate the challenge in maintaining such a robust funding level over time. It’s not that state lawmakers wouldn’t want to keep school aid at a high level. But over time, unavoidable complications arise. Competing, legitimate demands on the state budget — for Medicaid, prisons, the University of Nebraska, child welfare and much more — are enormous. Above all, recessions happen — which means state revenues plummet, and it can take years for revenues to regain their previous level. As State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Elkhorn area said of this year’s session, “It’s the first year we weren’t broke since I’ve been there.”

Work to reconcile urban/rural relations. This year’s session featured much discussion and disagreement to try to resolve urban-rural tensions over certain school-aid changes, such as proposed lids on local school spending. Those efforts failed, and the tensions remain. They won’t be going away unless lawmakers and school district leaders work harder to resolve them. As long as this urban/rural friction continues, it will greatly complicate efforts to further overhaul the state aid formula, to the frustration in particular of rural lawmakers pressing for such change.

Keep school-aid proposals out of the overall tax package. Efforts to pass the Revenue Committee’s main tax-revamp legislation were made even more difficult because the committee included certain school-aid changes in the bill. Those school-aid proposals turned out to be some of the main obstacles that kept the bill from passing. It was understandable that certain rural senators insisted on that linkage; those lawmakers have devoted great time and energy to jointly overhaul school aid in a single bill with tax-policy changes. But that approach proved an unquestionable failure this session. Lawmakers should avoid repeating it the next time they attempt a major tax-policy revamp.

The school-aid increase in the new budget is significant, but Nebraska leaders need to understand the many challenges that lie ahead and work to address them.

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