Proposal of vouchers for special needs students moves forward

lbonner@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2013 

Arguments over a bill that would give tax money to private schools that enroll children with disabilities offered a preview of the debate brewing over a broader measure that would give private school vouchers to thousands of students.

A state House committee Tuesday approved a bill that would offer vouchers of up to $6,000 a year to pay private school tuition for special education students who leave public schools. The measure would replace a relatively new law that offered tax credits to parents for the same purpose.

As they probed the voucher proposal, supporters said it would offer options to more parents whose disabled children struggle in public schools.

Low-income families cannot take advantage of the existing benefit because parents cannot claim the credit if they do not pay income taxes. In 2011, 619 tax filers claimed the credit. The bill’s proponents said grants would open the program to families with lower incomes.

Supporters propose spending $3.7 million on the vouchers for disabled students next year and $4.3 million the following year.

“At least this bill will cover the poorer children,” said Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican. Despite Stam’s assurances that private schools would offer their own scholarships to help poor parents fill gaps between the voucher and tuition costs, legislators critical of the proposal said families with higher incomes would reap the benefits.

Detractors said $6,000 a year was not enough for low-income parents to place their children in quality private schools. Parents would have to pay tuition up-front and provide receipts for reimbursement from the state.

Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, objected because private schools would not be required to have special programs for disabled students.

“I think it’s wrong to be on this campaign against the traditional public schools,” Luebke said.

The public comments mirrored the legislative debate.

“We believe that this is a fair and just use of taxpayer funds because it gives parents more choices,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition. “It puts control back in the hands of the parents and it removes the state-created barrier to success for children with disabilities.”

Christopher Hill of the N.C. Justice Center said the vouchers would go to fewer than 1,000 of the 190,000 children with disabilities attending public schools.

“The General Assembly has the constitutional mandate to provide, through taxation or otherwise, a general uniform system of free public schools,” he said. “It does not have a mandate to provide money to private schools.”

The committee approved the bill with a 25-10 vote. The bill now moves to the House Finance Committee.

This debate over vouchers was quieter than the fight over the tax credit two years ago. A much bigger battle may be looming over a proposed voucher program that would set aside $90 million over two years for children whose families meet income limits.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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