Removing Barriers in Nebraska Part Four: Taking Lessons on Education Options

Removing Barriers in Nebraska Part Four: Taking Lessons on Education Options

Education is one of the most important investments state and local governments make, and the most costly. Nebraska needs its citizens to be equipped with skills that enable them to be productive members of our workforce and positive contributors to their communities.  This brief will take a look at what education choice and policies each of our identified competitor states offer their residents and see how Nebraska’s education policy measures up to Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Texas.

We can learn more about what Nebraska can offer students and families by studying our key economic rivals, since most are growing faster or gain substantial population and income from Nebraska.

In our previous brief, we discussed how Nebraskans pay substantially higher tax bills than citizens in our competitor states on average, and that higher state and local spending is the primary cause of this difference.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, Nebraska’s taxpayers have been very good to the state’s education system, providing generous funding for students and educators alike. On a per pupil basis, Nebraska’s taxpayers spent $11,638 on public K-12 education in 2014[i].

All of Nebraska’s key competitors spend less per pupil on public education. On average, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Iowa spent $8,906 per pupil in 2014.

Figure 1:

Many people would assume states that spend more on public education would produce better results in student achievement. But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, Nebraska’s public education outcomes share many similarities and challenges with our rivals.

While students eligible for free and reduced lunch programs meet similar levels of proficiency in math and reading in all of these states, larger gaps in achievement can be found between black and Hispanic students and their white classmates.  Overall, when comparing Nebraska’s primary school achievement with that of its economic competitors, there isn’t much difference in terms of proficiency.[ii]

Since a family choosing to live in these other states will have a similar quality of K-12 education for their children on average, it would be difficult to conclude that Nebraska offers something these states do not.

On the other hand, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, and Iowa offer other education options that may strengthen their advantage for families who consider education a high priority in their relocation decisions.  Nebraska is one of the few states in the nation that still does not offer parents school choice options beyond the traditional public schools[iii].

Figure 2

While each of our rival states offer public charter school options that may be initiated by nonprofit organizations or school boards, the majority also provide private school choice programs that enable parents to afford a private school or homeschool learning environment for their child.

Arizona and Florida have been national leaders in offering tax credit scholarships, which help raise private money for scholarship funds for families in need of assistance. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program is the country’s largest, educating over 78,000 students from low-income families. In recent years, Iowa’s legislature initiated its own tax credit scholarship program with bipartisan support. Other states bordering Nebraska like Kansas and South Dakota have joined them.

Tax credit scholarships are now available in 17 states, and at least one new state has created a program 8 of the last 10 years.

Florida and Arizona were also on the cutting edge of introducing education savings accounts (ESA’s), which started as  publicly-funded programs to benefit special needs students and has since expanded to include children of active duty military, foster children, and children attending failing schools[iv].  ESA’s allocate funds to a parent-managed account. The funds may be applied to tuition, purchasing curriculum or educational therapies, and any remaining funds may be rolled over to future school years. Just as other states have embraced tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts are increasing in popularity. In 2015, Mississippi and Tennessee passed ESA legislation and Nevada became the first state in the country to make education savings accounts available to all public school students[v], a near-universal education choice option.

The data show Nebraska can compete with other states in higher education. Approximately 65 percent of Nebraska high school graduates attended a degree-granting institution within a year of high school graduation[vi].  Of that amount, over 50 percent choose to attend Nebraska colleges or universities.  If we look at first time degree seeking students as a whole, we find that 85 percent attending either a public 2-year or 4-year institution in Nebraska are residents[vii].

This participation in higher education by residents has translated into a highly educated workforce.  When comparing the share of the population that has either an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, only Colorado has a larger percentage of college educated workforce than Nebraska.  In fact, the remaining four states all have lower shares of their populations with higher education degrees when compared to Nebraska.

Figure 3