LINCOLN — Two Nebraska think tanks that generally take opposing views have found some common ground on boosting state aid to schools.
Leaders of the Platte Institute and OpenSky Institute both said recently that Nebraska should direct more state money to K-12 education.
Both argued that an increase is needed to reduce reliance on local property taxes.
But, in separate presentations to the Legislature's Education Committee on Thursday and Friday, the two offered differing prescriptions for improving school aid.
Their ideas are among several the committee is exploring as part of a major study of how Nebraska pays for K-12 education.
The study grew out of the pitched battles during the recent legislative session over how to divvy up state school aid.
It is being undertaken at the same time lawmakers are looking at reforming the state's tax system.
Jim Vokal, executive director of the conservative Platte Institute, said the state should find more money for school aid by cutting elsewhere.
He also suggested setting aside a pool of money for competitive block grants to encourage educational innovation.
He said states such as Ohio and Colorado provide grants for school districts that meet certain goals, such as closing achievement gaps and increasing graduation rates.
However, he acknowledged that the grants generally go to better-performing districts, not those that are struggling.
Renee Fry, executive director of the OpenSky Institute, said lawmakers need to consider whether their goals are the same as the original aims of the state aid formula.
Those were to reduce reliance on property taxes for school funding, provide a sustainable revenue source to keep pace with rising costs of schools, and assure more equity in educational opportunities for students.
Fry said the current school finance system has not met any of the original goals.
Nebraska ranks fourth nationally in the proportion of school funding provided by property taxes — 45 percent — and 49th in the proportion coming from state funds — 30 percent.
Data from other states shows that it is difficult to achieve equity in opportunity when so much of school support comes from property taxes, she said.
Tammy Berry, the Education Committee counsel, noted that some other states set a common property tax levy for school districts and shift money from property-rich districts to property-poor ones.
That option does not appear possible here because the Nebraska Constitution bars the state from levying property taxes, she said.
Fry recommended putting more money into state aid and targeting other state funds to schools with the greatest needs.
Those other funds, which are outside of the aid formula, include such things as special education funding and reimbursements for homestead exemptions and property tax credits.
She said the basic concepts in the state school aid formula promote equity by directing state funds to districts with higher needs and fewer local resources.
Calculations by the legislative fiscal office showed that common ideas for revamping the system could move the state farther from equity.
Giving schools a flat amount of money per student would mean much less money for schools with high property tax levies, growing enrollments and low costs per student.
Taking out factors that account for special costs, such as transportation, poverty and English-language learners, would not make much change in the overall distribution of aid. But it could mean big changes for individual school districts, said Tom Bergquist, a fiscal analyst.
The Education Committee plans public hearings across the state in early October.