LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers gave first-round approval Tuesday to a measure aimed at helping ensure that pregnant and parenting students can finish high school.
Legislative Bill 427 advanced on a vote of 29-3, despite concerns raised by some senators that it amounted to an unfunded mandate on schools.
The measure, introduced by State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, makes clear that K-12 schools must accommodate student mothers who want to breast-feed.
The bill requires schools to provide an appropriate place for students to pump breast milk and store it. The bill would apply to all public, private and parochial schools.
An amendment added to the bill would require all public school districts to adopt a policy for accommodating pregnant and parenting students.
The bill requires the State Department of Education to put out a model policy that local districts could adapt.
At a minimum, policies would have to address student absences during pregnancy, provide for tutoring or other coursework alternatives for pregnant or parenting students, specify how districts would accommodate students who need to pump milk, and identify quality local child care providers if the district does not have in-school child care.
The amendment incorporates language from LB 428, also a Vargas bill.
Vargas said some schools already do well at encouraging pregnant and parenting students to stay in school, while others could do better.
“I think we’re doing the right thing by standing by student mothers to make sure they can finish their education and provide for themselves and their family,” he said.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, the Education Committee chairman, objected to the amendment, saying it addresses a problem that doesn’t exist.
Rural schools handle such situations on their own, while larger ones already have policies, he said.
“We take care of our children, we take care of our mothers,” Groene said. “We don’t need mandates from on high.”
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard objected to the amendment as well. He said the Nebraska Constitution only requires lawmakers to provide free instruction.
“I don’t know where it’s our obligation to keep pregnant and parenting students in school,” he said.
But Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha argued for the amendment and the bill. He said some of the debate reminded him of the 1950s, when pregnant girls were not allowed to attend school.
“There is a time and a place where we should mandate accommodations,” he said.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln compared the debate about LB 427 and the amendment with Monday’s debate about creating “Choose Life” license plates. The bill creating those plates said they were about protecting children.
“This is hypocrisy,” she said. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Vargas said statistics show that 70 percent of teen mothers leave school and do not return after having a child.
Currently Nebraska school districts have widely varied policies about pregnant and parenting students, according to surveys done by the ACLU of Nebraska.
Only 17 percent have formal policies that address the breast-feeding needs of students, although many work with students on a case-by-case basis, the surveys found.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said schools have a legal obligation to accommodate those students. Federal Title IX, which requires gender equity in education, prohibits discrimination related to pregnancy and childbirth.
In addition, Nebraska law provides that women can breast-feed anywhere they have a right to be.
No one appeared in opposition to the breast-feeding bill or pregnant and parenting policy proposal during their public hearings. Both drew support from groups concerned about child well-being.