The General Assembly made history this year by enacting a law allowing tuition tax creditsor vouchersfor students with special needs who attend private schools. Proponents of these vouchers say their children could be better served in private schools. But opponents of these vouchers hope that the tax credits are never seen as anything but a small exception to the general rule that public funds should pay for public schools, not for private ones. They view the law as a way to expand the use of vouchers to all children, ultimately undermining public schools.

House Bill 344, which is now law, offers a new tax credit, up to $6,000 per school year, to parents who want to send their child with special needs to a private, rather than a public school.

The tax credit was the subject of a forum in Raleigh last week hosted by Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. PEFNC advocates say they want more parental choice in the form of additional charter schools, as well as public funding, via tax credits, for private and parochial schools. The group’s allies in the passage of House Bill 344 included the ARC of North Carolina, which serves people with developmental disabilities, the Autism Society of North Carolina and Beginnings for Parents of Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

Joni Alberg, executive director of Beginnings, told the forum that most of the children her organization works with attend public schools and are served well by them. “But some have special needs” and do better in private schools, Alberg added. “This bill is wonderful.”

About 200 parents, teachers and private-school administrators attended the forum. Among them was a Charlotte mother, Leslie Petruk, whose 10-year-old son, Brandon, is intelligent but nearly noncommunicative because of a rare disorder called XXY syndrome. His one word, she said, is “Mum.”

Petruk has been fighting for the bill since Brandon entered the first grade, when she opposed his placement in a public school. Ironically, she said Brandon is now “thriving” in public school now, but she plans to move him and claim the private-school tax credit when he enters his middle school.

“I wept,” she told the audience, describing her reaction to the bill’s passage, “because I knew that parents like you would have a chance to get their child what they needed. This was a long, hard battle.”

The enactment of HB 344 occurred with little public fanfare, in part because it was overshadowed by the headline-grabbing battles over education funding in the state budget, and in part because amendments to the bill sharply limited its immediate impact. Republicans backed the bill; most Democrats fought it, but some later switched and voted for the amended version. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, allowed the bill to become law without her signature.

The question now is whether this very limited measure becomes “the foot in the door” for conservatives determined to privatize public education. That was the term used by Ann McColl, the State Board of Education’s legislative director, in explaining the board’s opposition to it.

McColl said a detailed legal framework exists to protect the rights of special-needs students in public schools, but no such protections exist for those attending private schools. “Putting children in an environment where they don’t have any rights concerns us,” she said.

Another concern, she added, is that private schools aren’t accountable to the public for how they spend public funds: “You don’t know what kind of value you’re getting for your money.”

The bill’s chief sponsor was House Majority Leader Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican. Stam has made it clear in many speeches that he intends, if he can, to expand tax credits not just for special education but for all kids who attend a private or parochial school.

“Every child does not need to be in a state-run school,” Stam told a gathering of Republicans and others hosted by the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity-NC at the start of the 2011 session in January.

In that setting, Stam focused on another bill he’s sponsoring, House Bill 41, which would create a $2,500-a-year tax credit for the parents of any students who attend a private school or are homeschooled. Counties would be permitted, under the measure, to add another $1,000.

To keep the bill’s costs down, Stam said, HB 41 would apply initially only to students who are attending a public school and then leave for a private school or to be homeschooled. By doing so, HB 41 could be presented as a cost-saving measure for taxpayers. If instead it applied to the students currently at home or in private schools, he acknowledged, the annual cost to the state would be in “the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Stam said new state spending at that level was impossible as long as the economy remains in trouble. In fact, even the limited version of HB 41 didn’t get a hearing before the General Assembly went home. But Stam’s goal, he said in January, is to get HB 41 enacted as written and then “transition out” the limitations when the economy recovers.

Similarly, as enacted, HB 344 applies initially only to children who’ve attended a public school for the most recent two semesters before transferring to a private school. Additionally, only children who’ve been given an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, for special education in public school are eligible for the private-school credit. The latter rule, added by amendment, was designed to tighten eligibility requirements and prevent parents from claiming the tax credit for a private school when their child has no serious disability.

Stam, speaking at the PEFNC forum, called these limitations “bad,” and “the worst part of the bill,” but he said the sponsors were forced to accept them to get it passed. With the limits, he said, the bill is a money saver for the state and local school systems. Without them, it would’ve added “tens of millions of dollars” to the state budget.

But he pointed to Florida and Georgia as examples of states that started with very limited tax-credit programs for special education, then steadily expanded them as more parents pushed to be eligible. He predicted that such “phasing in” will occur here, too.

“This is a start,” agreed Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, a co-sponsor of the bill.

In Florida, which, according to PEFNC, has the oldest such program, some 21,000 students are claimed under the special-education tax credit for amounts ranging from $4,500 to $19,000. An estimated 370,000 Florida students have special-education needs that could qualify for the credit if they all attended private schools, according to the N.C. General Assembly’s fiscal research staff.

In North Carolina, according to legislative staff, some 120,000 students could qualify, but it’s estimated that just 2,000 will move to a private school over the next two years.

Average spending for a special-needs student in the North Carolina public school system is about $10,000 a year, compared to $7,000 for a student without special needs.

This is why proponents say the state will save money as more special-needs students move out of the public system: For every child who leaves and claims the $6,000-a-year credit, the taxpayers would save an average of $10,000, pocketing the difference.

Thus, Stam told parents at the forum, public school systems will find that it’s “in their interest” to write an IEP that qualifies the child for the private-school tax credit.

This kind of thinking irks McColl, who notes that until the 1960s, special-needs children weren’t allowed in the North Carolina public schools at all. It’s only been in the last 50 years, she says, that state laws have been reformed to assure that children with disabilities have the same rights as other children to receive a sound public education.

“The new law,” she adds quietly, “encourages these children not to be served in the public schools.”