Legislators are beginning a push for a law that would help pay for some North Carolina students to attend private or home schools in kindergarten through the 12th grade, an idea that is generating fierce debate about school choice and funding, and could lead to a veto from Gov. Bev Perdue.
The GOP leader in the state House, Paul Stam of Apex, is behind the proposal, which would allow parents to receive a refundable tax credit of up to $2,500 and an additional $1,000 from their county to offset private school costs. Commissioners in each county would have to approve their county's participation, and Stam said fast-growing areas, especially in Raleigh and around Charlotte, would be likely to join.
Stam has filed the bill, HB 41, outlining the idea, which makes the credit available only for children who first attend public schools. He plans to introduce it Monday. A co-sponsor is freshman Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican.
The proposed legislation comes as Republican lawmakers are moving also to allow for more charter schools, and to make them eligible for construction money from the state lottery while overhauling their supervision. Stam said his tax-credit idea would cover two broad areas: saving money, and providing more choices. Legislative staff research says the overall savings to the state and counties combined could top $50 million per year by shifting some students out of public schools.
Opponents say that the bill strikes at the heart of public education, that most fixed costs won't be helped by lower school populations, and that the amount proposed would chiefly help parents who can already afford private education.
"It helps parents with their taxes, saves the government lots of money, and provides more choices for the education of children," he said. "The impetus is the final one: to let children have different options, of course chosen by their parents, because one size does not fit all. But I'm realistic enough to realize that the only way I get this passed is if it saves the government money."
Rep. Rick Glazier, a leading Democrat on education issues and a former school board chairman from Fayetteville, called the bill "a direct assault on public schools."
"I don't think taxpayers ought to be involved in funding private schools, nor do I think the taxpayers want their money going there," Glazier said. "It is not the constitutional mandate of the state to fund the private schools."
One wrinkle: The only students eligible under Stam's bill would be ones who leave a public school system. In the program's first five years, a student could qualify for the private school aid only after spending at least a year in a public school system. After that, eligibility would be for students who spend at least one semester in a public school, according to the proposal.
Beyond that, eligibility would extend to any married couple earning no more than $100,000 in taxable income; the threshold for a single filer is $60,000.
Stam said he wishes all private school students could be eligible for the assistance, but the state couldn't afford that subsidy.
Legislative researchers estimate 8,000 to 15,000 students would participate each year. Roughly 160,000 students attend private schools in North Carolina now.
"This is a way to phase it in," Stam said. "If you made it available to everyone, it would be all cost and little savings."
Debate on the issue promises to be pitched.
Stam said he expects lawmakers to pass the bill, especially with Republican-backers of the idea now in the majority.
But the real question will be whether it can attract a veto-proof margin - three-fifths of the votes - in both the House and Senate.
"This one, the governor will veto," Stam said. "This is one she would veto. It will be close whether we can override it."
Stam said taxpayers should support the private school aid because the $2,500 tax credit and $1,000 county payment is far less than what it costs to educate a student in the public schools. Recent numbers say the public school cost per student is more than $6,900 per year.
"If the taxpayer can spend less than that on that student, that's a great savings," he said.
Opponents said they aren't sure the supporters' numbers are accurate, especially because the fixed costs of schooling - buildings, buses, fuel, teachers - that are built into the calculation of educating one student won't go away because some children leave public school for a private one.
Vouchers or not?
Lawmakers already have a grant program that subsidizes private college tuition for North Carolina residents. In place since 1975, the Legislative Grant Tuition Program pays private colleges $1,850 per year per student on the theory that it saves the UNC system money.
But Sheri Strickland, president of the 60,000-member N.C. Association of Educators, said eroding the K-12 schools is not what taxpayers want. The bill was already a topic of discussion Saturday at an NCAE political brainstorming session attended by more than 150 people in the Research Triangle Park.
Strickland and others said that private school tuition averages $5,000 or more for K-8 and can be double that and more for private high school.
"It's the people who can already afford to make the choice who will have the choice," she said. "It will probably be our upper- and middle-class parents, economically, who could take advantage."
She said taxpayers consistently have said they want their money going to public schools instead of private ones and that there will be less accountability on how students are educated.
"It's a scheme ... with long-term consequences that we should all be very, very careful about," said Strickland, who has led the educators group since 2008.
She called it a "voucher bill" that most people would oppose. Stam disputes that it is a voucher - which typically allows for a direct payment from the government to a private school - because it is based on a tax credit that will go to the parents. "The schools won't even know who is taking the credit," he said.
It's not a new idea. Stam tried to force a vote on a similar bill last year, but Democratic leaders blocked it. Stam said he intends also to introduce a bill this year to give a much larger tax credit to families of special-needs students who want to attend private schools.
Darrell Allison, whose Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina recently hosted a forum on choices, said the bill isn't perfect in terms of who could qualify. He said 13 other states have similar programs. Stam said some of his idea came from Arizona, which also has had to deal with high-growth school districts.
Allison said it's important for the state to offer choices that could lead to better-educated students.
"If we have more quality options and better choices about education, then our students will do better," he said. "We need to embrace this as an opportunity to try something different."
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