Real help for children with disabilities

May 14, 2011 

— In his 2005 best-seller "Freakonomics," University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt argues that we can anticipate and understand people's actions if we first understand their motives.

Things would be much simpler in Raleigh if special-interest groups and legislators heeded this simple concept. It would allow them to understand why parents such as Wendy Katsiagianis need House Bill 344 - Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities.

Katsiagianis, a Chapel Hill mother, does not want to disrupt public education but simply wants to make education work for her child - a son with special needs. Her 13-year-old son is deaf and has ADHD and Tourette Syndrome, among other challenges. She spends more than $400 a month on a private teacher but wants her son to attend a private school that would adequately address all of his educational and health needs.

Katsiagianis' situation is familiar to thousands of parents across our state. Parents like Leslie Petruck in Charlotte, whose son has a condition called XYY. Parents like Leigh Reeves in Sanford, whose daughter is deaf and is on the autism spectrum. For parents like these, HB 344 helps them by creating a $6,000 tax credit for families with special needs children who incur significant costs that include private school tuition, personal tutors and therapeutic services.

Analysis from the General Assembly's nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division indicates that such a program would save $10 million each for school districts and the state. Moreover, savings incurred by the state would not only be recouped but also would, in fact, be redirected to a fund for new special education programs inside our exemplary North Carolina public schools.

Nonetheless, critics such as the N.C. Association of Educators and the Association of School Administrators claim that the bill will create a mass exodus from North Carolina's public schools to private schools.

First, this argument is predicated on a belief that our public schools are so bad that families would want to leave them. Moreover, it ignores the fact that tens of thousands of families with special needs children are already receiving adequate help in our public schools and have no reason to leave them.

Second, comparable programs in other states point to the contrary of a mass exodus. Florida's special needs program, which is similar to that in HB 344, has been in existence for 12 years. Out of the more than 500,000 Florida students with special needs in grades K-12, only 21,054 - a mere 4 percent - have opted for the private school program. Just like with HB 344, Floridians were not attempting to bankrupt public education but to complement it - especially for families with children who have the most unique educational needs.

These examples, coupled with the fact that this bill saves millions for our state, should be more than enough incentive to pass this legislation. This important issue goes beyond mere politics - as HB 344 is neither a Republican issue nor a Democratic issue. Simply put, it is the right issue for the thousands of other North Carolina families who are crying out for help on behalf of their most precious gift - their children.

Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in N.C.

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