Latest semantics spat proves that words still matter

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Gov. Pete Ricketts hit a nerve when he picked up President Trump’s use of the word “government” to describe public schools.

In his general endorsement of a school aid reform bill in the Legislature, Ricketts adopted the description Trump used in his State of the Union speech, decrying “failing government schools.”

The term sounded like fingernails on a chalk board to public education interests who have been flooding the airwaves with messages like the “I Love PS” campaign counteracting promotion of charter schools, “school choice” and property tax cuts on the other side of the issue.

For those who remember the Cold War, the term “government schools” creates images from the days of the Soviet Union. Back then, we heard horror stories about children being whisked off to government-run daycare so their parents could work for the state.

Sure enough, most American kids now spend time in daycare while both parents work.

“This is Nebraska, not Russia. They are called public schools for a reason,” said Jenni Benson, president of the 28,000-member Nebraska State Education Association.

“Nebraska has excellent, fiscally responsible public schools that are accountable to the voters. We have local control and local school boards that are elected by local taxpayers. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of children attend our public schools. All children are welcome to attend and be served by our public schools,” she said in a release.

For his part, Ricketts says property tax relief is his top priority, and “the only way to achieve long-term property tax relief is to control spending at both the state and local levels while we grow Nebraska’s economy.”

Ricketts has a point; check your property tax bill and you’ll see that two-thirds or so goes to public schools, and the vast majority of that to salaries. Property tax reduction is bound to have painful effects in local communities.

The state has long had a lid mechanism in place to limit the growth of school spending to 2.5%, which critics contend actually becomes a floor for schools reluctant to limit spending for fear they will need increases in future years.

How that 2.5% is spent is up to local school boards -- McCook Public Schools recently granted a 3.79% increase in teachers’ base pay.

Ricketts contends the 2.5% increase is adequate to overcome inflation that has been running 1-2% over the last decade.

The NSEA called the property tax reform bill, LB974, “overly restrictive” and noted that state spending has grown near the 2.5% limit over Ricketts’ time in office.

Whatever “solution” is found to the property tax issue, if one ever is, neither side will be completely satisfied.

Meanwhile the choice of a “government” vs. “public” school label may be one of those tipping points that brings the issue into focus.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: