In the early 1860s, during the time of the Civil War, a small brick Catholic schoolhouse, St. Benedict School, went up in Nebraska City, built mostly by the hands of the town’s citizens.
St. Benedict’s students were boys and girls, Catholic and non-Catholic, the children of immigrants and pioneers. Those students received the gift of Catholic education from their teachers, Benedictine nuns, and from their parents, who built the school, and from their entire community, who sacrificed so that children could be formed in faith, in character, and in knowledge.
Today, the 26 elementary schools and six high schools in the Diocese of Lincoln are extraordinary places. Our schools still serve the children of immigrants and refugees; our students represent nations and cultures from around the world—in some schools, dozens of languages are spoken, and students learn English together in the classroom.
We welcome children from families in poverty—in some schools, more than half of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, and for other kinds of assistance. We welcome children with disabilities and challenges. We welcome children from broken families needing love, attention, and assistance. Our schools serve children whether they are Catholic or not. We welcome as many children as we are able to, because the Lord calls us to love and serve with gladness.
It is a blessing to give our students an excellent education. Our teachers and administrators have the best possible training and experience. And because of the generosity of donors, our schools have the best of modern educational technology, and a full-time team of experts helping to use technology to support our educational goals. And, of course, our philosophy of education ensures that every child is held to high standards, and helped to achieve his full potential.
Our students consistently outscore their Nebraska peers on standardized tests, and are recognized by our state, and by the University of Nebraska, for their ongoing academic excellence.
But our Catholic schools also provide something no other schools can. Our students learn the meaning of their lives in Jesus Christ. They learn to put others before themselves, and to put God before all else. Our alumni become good citizens, good mothers and fathers, good leaders in business and government, and good priests and religious sisters, because they know what truth, goodness, and beauty are, and they pursue those things. Our Catholic and non-Catholic students are shaped by the virtues of our faith: they learn, and live, that faith, hope, and charity are at the center of meaningful lives.
I am continually renewed and encouraged by the character, the integrity, the ingenuity, and the imagination of our Catholic school students. They are prepared to lead loving families, holy parishes, and thriving Nebraska communities, in virtue, joy, and truth.
Catholic education in Nebraska has always been a partnership of pastors, and parents, and religious sisters, and parishioners, and communities. The Diocese of Lincoln has excellent, affordable, vibrant schools because so many people sacrifice to make them thrive. Our schools have always been an apostolate of our parishes: a dedicated effort to form all students for excellence, for happiness, and for holiness.
This year, the Nebraska Legislature is considering LB 295, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give tax credits to those who donate money to the costs of private school education. The Opportunity Scholarship Act would incentivize donations for tuition scholarships to support the Catholic or private-school education of low and middle-income students, and, because many public school districts receive state aid for each enrolled child, create a direct savings for our state.
Opportunity Scholarships would allow students without financial resources to more easily attend private and parochial schools. And because Opportunity Scholarships would be funded by private donations, they would not divert any public money to non-public schools, or harm the educational mission of our public school systems. Instead, they would support a parent’s right to choose the best education for each child, and recognize the critically important role that Catholic and private schools play in our state.
Seventeen states offer Opportunity Scholarship tax credits. They’ve led to billions of dollars of states savings. And 44 states have some publicly supported options for non-public schools. Nebraska, despite its rich legacy of Catholic education, is one of only six states with no publicly supported options for school. The Opportunity Scholarship Act could change that.
Our Catholic schools support Nebraska’s communities in serious and important ways. The time is now for Nebraska to recognize and encourage those who support our Catholic schools.
I am proud of our Catholic schools, and grateful for the sacrifices that Nebraskans have made for Catholic education. I ask each of you to join me in encouraging your state senators to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act; to honor the long history of Catholic school education in Nebraska by supporting its future.