By Julia Jackson
Nebraska News Service
A three-hour hearing in a crowded room set the scene for the Nov. 19 discussion on the distribution of state lottery funds for education.
Thirty people testified in front of the packed audience at the Legislature’s Education Committee on behalf of their respective suggestions for the lottery funds. Some asked for continued or increased funding for certain programs while others suggested new areas to consider putting that money into.
Eight testifiers spoke on behalf of the continued allocation of lottery funds to distance learning. BJ Peters, director of technology services and distance learning/technology for Educational Service Unit 13 in Scottsbluff, said the use of lottery funds for distance education helps allow for equity among students throughout Nebraska.
“It’s really leveled the playing field for our students,” Peters said. “They deserve the same opportunities as students in Omaha and Lincoln.”
For many smaller schools throughout Nebraska, students are allowed access to advanced courses, such as agricultural or science classes to prep for college courses.
Eliu Paopao, technology director for Chadron public schools, agreed with Peters, and also spoke to what would happen should funding for distance learning programs be cut.
“I think we will try to continue them as best we can, but it’ll be tight in our budgets if we don’t have availability of these funds,” Paopao said.
Peters and Paopao both testified remotely, along with three others, from Alliance through the use of video-conferencing.
Eight more people spoke on behalf of the continued allocation of lottery funds to the Nebraska Opportunity Grant. Sheila Johns is the financial aid director for Western Nebraska Community College and said the grant is a big selling point to prospective students.
“These funds allow us one more incentive for students to stay within the state to receive higher education,” Johns said.
She said because of the college’s Panhandle locations, out-of-state colleges in Wyoming can be more appealing to students. Johns said the continuation of lottery funding for the opportunity grants will allow students to stay in the state and make them more likely to start their careers in Nebraska.
Korinne Tande, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for Nebraska State College System office, said the grant is vital to college students.
“These students know what we know; college changes lives,” Tande said. “Reducing the funding available for the Nebraska Opportunity Grant puts our students at risk.”
Two other areas of focus for the lottery funds were early childhood education and funding for gifted students programs.
Two students from Omaha Public Schools, one eighth grader and one freshman, testified in favor of funding for accelerated student programs, each saying they allowed them to feel challenged in the classroom instead of bored.
Brian Halstead of the Nebraska Department of Education said that due to Nebraska’s more stable economy, funding for early childhood education and high ability learners should return to the general funding allocation and be removed from the lottery fund allocation.
Other ideas for the funds involved after-school programs that allowed for specialized learning like language programs.
Another testifier, Jay Sears, program director for the Nebraska State Education Association, asked for continuation of lottery dollars to the Attracting Excellence in Teaching program, which is a loan forgiveness program for Nebraska teachers.
“People aren’t coming into the profession like they used to,” Sears said. “It’s the only incentive we have to recruit and retain people in the profession.”
Through June 30, 2016, around 20 percent of the remaining lottery funds are transferred to the Education Innovation Fund after prizes have been awarded and the allocated amount for the Nebraska Compulsive Gamblers Association has been made.
The Education Innovation Fund allows for programs through distance learning, among other uses. On July 1, 2016, that percentage of lottery dollars will jump to 44.5 percent.