When special needs children aren’t well-served by North Carolina’s K-12 public education system, what recourse do they have? Unfortunately, the answer has historically been “not much.” This year, a bipartisan, forward-thinking coalition of state lawmakers has set out to change that.
Legislators in North Carolina’s House and Senate have pushed bills providing families of special needs students with a refundable tax credit for education expenses. Based on developments this week, however, the proposal seems increasingly unlikely to go to a vote this session. Weary families, it seems, may have to wait even longer.
That’s a shame. House Bill 388 and its companion, Senate Bill 2059, have the potential to widen the aperture of educational freedom for disabled students, permitting their parents to take an education tax credit of up to $6,000 per year to offset costs such as private school tuition. In order to qualify, students would need to have spent at least two semesters in public school and have an IEP (individualized education program) that “requires at least daily special instructional or therapeutic services received outside the regular classroom,” according to language contained in the bill.
Such a proposal makes good sense to most North Carolinians. According to a recent poll from Public Policy Polling (commissioned by the parental choice group, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina), a whopping 80 percent of state residents favor legislation providing families of special needs students with a tuition tax credit.
North Carolinians undoubtedly recognize this: Public education provides a good fit for some disabled students, but many others have needs that public schools simply cannot meet. In a report on special needs education tax credits, released earlier this month, Locke Foundation analyst Terry Stoops chronicled the unhappy plight of many of these underserved children: “During the 2006-07 school year, 49.5 percent of high school students with disabilities graduated in four years…Only 40.7 percent of elementary and middle school students with disabilities were proficient in math, while 57.6 were proficient in reading.”
Data such as these should serve as a sobering call to action. And promising estimates of cost savings should enhance the viability of special needs tax credit legislation even more. Fiscal projections cited by Representative Paul Stam, one of the bill’s key sponsors in the House, indicate this program would cost the state a couple of million dollars, but would save counties much more – about six million dollars annually, in fact.
Despite these calculations – and favorable public opinion to boot – the education establishment has lobbied forcefully to quash the legislation. Eddie Davis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, characterized the bill as “educationally unsound,” saying it “could harm students with disabilities.” According to Mr. Davis, the tax credit legislation “strikes at the very core of support for public education in our state.”
Such statements, while effective at rallying the establishment faithful, aren’t grounded in good research or the practical life experiences of thousands of students. Five choice programs for special needs students across the country – in Florida, Ohio, Utah, Arizona, and Georgia – show that far from causing harm, choice programs are providing relief and educational options for disabled kids and their families.
Research also shows choice is good for public schools. A 2008 study from the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene and Marcus Winters evaluating Florida’s special needs choice program found, “Rather than being harmed, public schools respond to the challenge of exposure to school choice by improving the education they provide.”
There’s nothing unsound about that. In the end, when it comes to support for public education, North Carolinians are pretty clear: They value their public schools. But they also believe disabled students do best when they have educational options. And really, what’s best for kids – not special interest groups – ought to be at the core of how we fund education.