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Commentary: A missed opportunity for special-needs education

By Darrell Allison
For the Salisbury Post
Legislation that would have helped educate disabled children in North Carolina failed in the General Assembly after the House Education Committee voted against the measure last week.
The bill would have provided a $6,000 annual tax credit to any family of a special-needs child who transferred from a public school to a private school in order to meet their child’s educational needs.
Only a year ago, similar legislation enjoyed remarkable bipartisan support from policymakers and the general public. A statewide survey conducted by Public Policy Polling last May indicated that 80 percent of North Carolinians favored special needs educational tax credits, with support cutting across all demographics of gender, race and party affiliation.
This year, the measure lost its bipartisan political backing, but some believed it had reason to succeed. Budget shortfalls currently threaten to shut down public schools and educational programs for students with special needs, potentially displacing entire student populations. Lawmakers estimated that a special needs educational tax credit program could have saved the state and counties millions per year. In addition, the bill followed the trend in a growing number of states where special needs scholarship programs have been established.
Despite all this, public school lobbyists vehemently opposed the measure and influenced lawmakers to vote along party lines. The lobby organizations argued that students with disabilities have made great progress in public schools and that private schools are not accountable under the federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the act that governs special needs education in public schools, guaranteeing a free, appropriate public education to all children with disabilities.
The IDEA argument could not have been more timely. While the House Education Committee was denying tax credits to families of special needs kids in North Carolina, the Supreme Court was citing IDEA as the basis for a landmark ruling. In a case involving an Oregon family who transferred their special needs son from public to private school, the court ruled that parents of children with disabilities may seek reimbursement for private school tuition even if they never have sent their children to public schools.
Specifically, the Supreme Court concluded that “IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special education services when a school district fails to provide a [free and public education] and the private school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school.”
North Carolina’s failed measure for special needs educational tax credits only would have helped families who transfer out of public schools. Parents of disabled children in our state understandably are frustrated that such a limited provision fell victim to political pressure. But greater pressures remain.
Facing budget woes and possible far-reaching implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling, North Carolina is compelled now more than ever to address the needs of disabled students who require educational options outside of public schools.
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Kannapolis native Darrell Allison is president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a statewide nonprofit organization that supports greater educational options through parental school choice.

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