LEXINGTON — Nebraska State Education Association President Jenni Benson visited Lexington on Wednesday, Feb. 27 during her tour across the state talking about public education, how to fund it and promote public education programs as the Nebraska Legislature is in session.
Benson was elected to a three year term at NSEA president in April 2017, previously she served as vice president. She has had a diverse experience teaching in both Texas and Nebraska. She has worked in high poverty schools, taught children with disabilities and served on a number of education boards in Lincoln.
The NSEA is a member-directed union representing 28,000 public school teachers and other education professionals across Nebraska, it is the oldest profession association, being founded in October 1867.
Benson said since the Nebraska Legislature is currently in session, it brings items to the forefront. Currently the legislature is wrestling with property taxes, and how much state aid should go to education.
According to the NSEA the legislature is facing a number of challenges like a projected state revenue shortfall during the 2019-2020 budget year of $95.1 million, taxpayer advocacy groups have targeted Nebraska for reductions in both property and income taxes which will affect the ability of Nebraska schools to provide quality education, Nebraska’s state aid to education is 48th in the nation, second to last, because of this inadequate support, public schools rely heavily on local property taxes.
NSEA has laid out their legislative goals as, expanding the quality of education in public schools, increasing tools available to educators, favoring opportunities which will benefit all students, not just a select few, and to increase state aid for public education, because state revenue shortfalls should not be balanced by reduce already substandard levels of state financial support for public education.
Benson said the NSEA supports LB 314, a bill introduced by Senator Tom Briese of Albion. The bill is aimed to move Nebraska away from an over-reliance on property taxes and toward adequately funding education in the state, according to a press release from Senator Briese’s office.
This bill would generate revenue by closing several exemptions in Nebraska sales tax, raising the state sales tax rate by one-half of one percent ending an exemption on out of state earnings through certain companies which are not subject to state sales tax elsewhere, adding a 7.84 percent surtax on income over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars per year for individuals, end a tax exemption on tangible personal property, along with other measures, according to the bill’s statement of intent.
"We believe increasing the state’s investment in our students and schools is necessary to address the property tax issue," Benson said in a letter for the public record supporting the bill, "LB 314 accomplishes this with revenue, raising measures and calls for a long overdue study of our state’s school funding formula."
Funding for schools is a major focus for the NSEA. "We cannot continue to make cuts," Benson said, "We need to increase our revenue, we have all dealt with the cuts, but how important are our children. These changes must come from the legislature, they must make tough decisions."
Benson said during an interview Wednesday, "We are committed to finding out the best solutions to fund public schools, we rely heavily on property taxes at the moment. We are working to find solutions which help balance this."
When asked about the difficulty in keeping new teacher in the profession, Benson said many communities in Nebraska only have one teacher for one subject across many different grade groups. Many may feel isolated but NSEA is trying to offer virtual mentors to these new teachers, Benson said. The import part is to make these teachers like they are a part of a group, she said.
Another aspect which is posing challenges for teachers is the rising issue of students’ mental health. "Every child deserves a teacher who is prepared and support," Benson said. One way to help alleviate this is to form relationships with students, and not just teachers.
Benson said a child is in school only seven hours out of a 24 hour day, the bonds they form outside of school are crucial to their mental health. She added some things in this area are not within the scope of the schools to handle.
Benson also advocated for education, "being an engine of economic development." The NSEA lists several factors why funding education is a boost to the economy.
For every dollar spent on education returns more than two dollars to citizens in reduced prison costs. A high school dropout earns about $260,000 less in their lifetime than a high school graduate and pays $60,000 less in taxes. The nation loses 1.6 percent of overall gross domestic product, $192 billion, with each cohort of 18-year-olds who never complete high school. A 10 percent reduction in school expenditures could yield a one to two percent decrease in post school annual earnings in the long run, according to NSEA information.
"Our schools can be used to help drive growth, we believe in our schools and communities," Benson said, "people need to visit our schools, Lexington has made a commitment to education, look at the preschool program in town."
When asked about Governor Ricketts’ advocating for private education, Benson said the state has great private schools in this state, but public education serves all children. "As educators we take the students where they are," she said, "we want to make it clear all children deserve the same opportunities."
Benson said the rest of Nebraska needs to be educated about Lexington and what is going on in the school system. She said people outside the community may not understand the type of diversity in the schools. There are 40 plus countries represented here, just look at all the flags in the high school.
"There are unbelievable things happening in Nebraska schools which we should be proud of," said Benson, "I am pleased to be in the NSEA and I am proud to be a Nebraskan."