NC House adds private tuition break to Senate bill

  • Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 10:19 a.m.

RALEIGH (AP) House leaders on Monday changed the Senate's public school overhaul bill to include tax breaks for businesses that give money to nonprofits that in turn provide scholarships to attend private schools.

The House Education Committee debated and took public comment on their version of a Senate measure promoted by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, but didn't vote on it. The Senate version focuses largely on beefing up public school reading programs in early grades, ending job-protecting tenure for veteran teachers and requiring local districts to create merit pay plans.

The House panel version replaces the merit pay idea with bonuses for teachers who help students perform well on Advanced Placement tests, which allow students to receive college credit. Other items removed from the Senate version include one that grades schools from A to F on an annual report card based on how students are doing, rather than the current rating system.

The most significant change to the Excellent Public Schools Act, however, is a private-school element.

The House adds the so-called "Equal Opportunity School Tax Credit," which provides businesses dollar-for-dollar tax credits for the monetary donations they send to nonprofits. These charities then offer scholarships of up to $4,000 per year for children in grades K-12 for tuition and fees to attend non-public schools.

The tax credit has been promoted by school-choice advocates as a way to help low- and middle-income families who are dissatisfied with the educational experience they are receiving in the public schools. The scholarships would be given to children in families whose household income is no more than about twice the federal poverty level.

Critics see the measure as the next step toward using taxpayer money as vouchers for parents to send children to private schools.

Larry Cartner, superintendent of the Person County Schools, pointed out to committee members that the proposal would increase the maximum amount of aggregate tax credits available from $2 million during the second half of 2012 to $40 million for all of 2013.

"I don't think that we can afford that kind of drain," Cartner said, adding that the program would take money and students away from the public schools.

Jessica Oney of Garner told the committee that the scholarships would help her 8-year-old son Christopher get the special assistance and smaller class sizes that a private school provides. Oney said Christopher is an excellent reader but he hasn't met end-of-grade test score requirements for reading comprehension.

"I know that others have called this tax credit scholarship an effort to take away from our public schools, but as a parent I see this program as a lifeline for my son's future," Oney told the panel.

Berger and other Republicans have said the state's public education system has fallen short on test scores, graduation rates and preparing students for higher education.

But Chris Hill, director of the Education & Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, said the entire bill "is based on the premise that public education is failing, which is just not true."

Berger didn't say whether he supported the tax credit idea only that it hadn't been in the scope of his original bill. It's unclear when the committee will consider the bill next but time is running in the legislative session. Lawmakers want to adjourn in the next two to three weeks.

School choice boosters scored big victories last year when the Republican-led General Assembly lifted North Carolina's statewide limit of 100 charter schools and approved tax credits to help children with disabilities get services outside the public schools.

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