Private school aid advances

State House panel OKs a tax credit for parents of children with disabilities.

Staff writerApril 27, 2011 

— Legislative proposals for tax credits for private education have gone nowhere in previous years. But it's a new day in Raleigh.

On Tuesday, the House Education Committee gave its OK to a bill that would give $6,000 in tax credits annually to families who enroll a disabled child in a private school or home school. The bill passed the committee 26-17 and next goes to the Finance Committee before a full House vote. The Senate has not acted on it.

Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, House majority leader, said it was the fifth time lawmakers had tried similar legislation.

"It's time," said Stam, an Apex Republican and a sponsor of the bill. "It's ripened. It's ready to go."

It appears North Carolina may join other states where public funding is shifted to private schools. There is a growing movement for school choice across the country, with tax credits, vouchers and publicly funded scholarship programs for private school students.

Republicans have pushed tax credits before but never gained ground on the issue while Democrats controlled the legislature. Now Republicans are in charge, and two tax credit proposals are in play - one, a general tax credit that would give parents $2,500 a year if they move their children to private school.

The special education bill is supported by advocacy groups for the disabled, who say children who aren't served well by public schools and shouldn't be stuck there.

Public schools' view

But the state's public education establishment has lined up to blast the plan, saying it will erode money and support from public schools.

Bill McNeal, executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators, said the bill gives parents an incentive to flee public schools. He called it a slippery slope.

"No matter how strongly the bill proponents indicate that this legislation is not about vouchers, we believe you really cannot separate this proposal from the school choice movement that is seeking to get established in North Carolina," he said.

There are about 190,000 children with disabilities in the state's public schools. In order to be eligible for the tax credit, a special needs student must have been enrolled for at least a year in a public school with an individualized education program, according to the bill.

An analysis by legislative staff estimates 1 percent to 5 percent of eligible children would participate. Under that scenario, the state could save an estimated $10 million a year and counties could save $10 million a year collectively.

In addition to providing a tax credit, the bill would also require the state to set aside $2,000 for each student who leaves public school. That money would be put into a fund for special education services to be used for those students who remain in public schools.

"This bill is a win win win win," Stam said.

Leanne Winner, a lobbyist with the N.C. School Boards Association, pointed out that North Carolina funds students with special needs on a per pupil amount. The bill, she warned, would mean that private schools would siphon off students with low-level disabilities, leaving the public schools with the children who are more expensive to educate.

'Crying out for options'

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina, said most parents will stick with the public schools but those who aren't satisfied deserve the chance to send their kids elsewhere. "They're crying out for options, they're crying out for other alternatives," he said.

Julia Adams, a lobbyist for the advocacy group Arc of North Carolina, told of a parent who was left with little choice but to remove her developmentally disabled child from public school to be home-schooled. In the process, the mother incurred a huge financial responsibility.

"But her child did begin to prosper and move forward with his educational plan," she said.

Opponents said the bill would jeopardize a vulnerable population because private schools provide no accountability or legal protection for the students.

"How many private schools in North Carolina are prepared to serve students with disabilities?" said Mary Watson, who oversees exceptional children services for the state Department of Public Instruction.

jane.stancill@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4559

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