Nebraska Rejects Funding Initiatives

Published January 1, 1997

Nebraska voters on November 5 defeated two initiatives that promised property tax relief and more equitable funding of public schools. Their vote may have revealed a nationwide trend toward skepticism of “tax swap” schemes and higher spending on public education.

The Nebraska initiative originally promised voters two things: a cap on property taxes of 90 cents per $100 of assessed value for schools, and language making a “quality education a fundamental right of each individual” and making it a “paramount duty of the State” to fund such an education.

State Attorney General Don Stenberg ordered that the two parts of the original initiative be offered to voters as two independent initiatives.

Initiative 411 would have made quality education a fundamental right. Initiative 412 proposed a property tax cap. Both were rejected by voters by three-to-one margins.

Critics of the first initiative argued that making a “quality education” a “fundamental right” would open the door to endless litigation and a court takeover of the state’s public schools. Since what constitutes a “quality education” is necessarily subjective and varies from family to family, there would be no limit to the spending or policy changes that could be justified under such language.

Critics also opposed the “paramount duty” language in Initiative 411. Such language, they argued, would give the schools a “blank check” from the state’s treasury, since “paramount” could be interpreted to mean that no other state function or expense could stand in the way of funding the schools.

The Omaha World-Herald, the state’s largest daily newspaper, editorialized that “if a judge ordered advanced placement courses in Chinese and computer science at every Nebraska high school in order to provide ‘quality education,’ for example, Nebraskans would have to send the public schools even more than 50 cents on the dollar of their state taxes.”

Dennis Wellendorf, executive director of the Omaha-based Constitutional Heritage Institute, said that Initiative 411 was part of a wider effort to establish an implied or explicit “fundamental right” to a quality education. “I believe this is a national trend,” he said, pointing to an attempt to pass a similar amendment in Illinois in 1992. “The language of the Illinois amendment was strikingly similar to that of Initiative 411 here in Nebraska,” he observed, noting that the Illinois amendment also failed.

Another indicator that this was part of a national effort, said Wellendorf, was a late contribution of $100,000 from the National Education Association in an attempt to aid passage of Initiative 411. “Nebraska was a test case for them,” he said. “We were very pleased with the outcome.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].