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Kids with disabilities often need more help than public schools can give. A scholarship can make it possible for them to go to a school that better fits their needs.
By Holly West
With state lawmakers wrangling over competing tax plans in the General Assembly, advocates are looking to protect all of their tax credits and loopholes.
The disability community is no exception; lobbyists who represent children with disabilities are working to insure a tax credit that gives money to those children to attend nonpublic schools gets protected.
The tax credit was established in 2007 to help children with disabilities pay for private school or other special-education services. In this legislative session, that tax credit may become a scholarship grant instead.
“We are very concerned that this program, which has been very successful, would be eliminated or repealed during the tax-reform debate,” said Julia Adams, assistant director of government relations for The Arc of North Carolina, which advocates for people with disabilities. “That’s why it’s very important that we switch it from a tax credit to a scholarship.”
The amount of money each student is eligible to receive – up to $3,000 per semester – would not change.
If the program becomes a scholarship, more low-income children would qualify to receive the funds. Adams said the bill would provide help to children who can’t get it under the current system.
“This opens it up to an entire community of individuals who would be in one of the lower economic brackets,” she said.
The current program
At present, families who haven’t been happy with how their disabled children are being treated in the public school system and choose to move them to a private school receive a $3,000 per semester break on their taxes. In the 2011 tax year, 619 families received the tax credits. From the returns that have been filed so far for the 2012 tax year, 485 credits have been claimed.
Jennifer Mahan, director of advocacy and public policy for the Autism Society of North Carolina, said that under the bill more needy children would have access to assistance.
“Most of the families that I talk to who want to take advantage of the tax credit fall into an arena where their tax liability isn’t great enough for them to take advantage of it, and it’s very disappointing,” Mahan said.
To qualify for the program, students must have an individual education program (IEP), a plan created with the school district, a child’s family and any medical providers to help optimize a child’s ability to learn. The child must also be receiving daily special-education services at their current school.
Adams said The Arc has been lobbying for this legislation for a long time.
“We all recognize that not one box fits all,” she said. “For some students, they have exhausted all of the services that the public school could offer them and they were still struggling.”
In a Senate Education Committee meeting Wednesday, several members expressed concerns about ensuring the money was being used to pay for quality services.
The scholarship grant program will cost the state $13.4 million in fiscal years 2013-18.
Mahan and Adams both say the program will save money in the long run. The average cost to educate a child in the North Carolina public school system is $8,436 per year. Special-education students cost the state an average of nearly $11,000 per year.
Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Pleasant Garden) said she wasn’t sure there was enough oversight for the private schools being paid with these state funds.
“A credit to the parent is one thing, but the assurance of the services to the child with a developmental disability is an issue,” she said, noting that school districts issue and track the progress of children with IEPs.
“How does the school system make sure some other school that they have no authority over adheres to the requirements of the IEP?” Robinson asked.
The sponsors of the bill said the Department of Public Instruction and the N.C. Special Education Assistance Authority make sure the money is being used to provide services to the child, but parents are ultimately responsible for ensuring the quality of service.
“Parents with children of disabilities are keenly aware of what’s working for their kid and what’s not working for their kid,” Mahan said. “We honestly believe that parents do really understand their children really well.”
Cover image by Editor B, flickr creative commons