A new state law, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Jordan, that creates a scholarship system allowing the parents of children with special needs to use taxpayer dollars to finance educational alternatives outside the traditional public school system has received mixed reviews from the county’s top school administrator.
“If that money they are setting aside for this was provided to LEAs (local education agencies), then we could help our exceptional children even more, especially here in Ashe County,” Ashe County Schools Superintendent Todd Holden said.
The bipartisan house bill passed 90-21 in the North Carolina General Assembly earlier this month.
The “Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grant” (HB 269) is replacing the Special Needs Tax Credit.
“This is being moved to an actual scholarship, where they will apply to a special board that has been set up and provide the receipts and so forth for these kinds of expenses,” Jordan said.
Jordan said approximately 615 families across the state use the tax credit. Those families will have first preference in the scholarship grants.
“What it means is for any parents in the state who have children with disabilities, if they are in the public school system and do not feel their child is getting the services that they need, they will have the option of applying up to $3,000 per semester to use towards tuition or special services for their children to go to home school, to private school or charter school or anything else,” Jordan said.
Ashe County Superintendent Todd Holden said that $6,000 per year is not enough money to educate students with severe disabilities.
“It’s going to allow (parents of) kids to make choices, however, I don’t think the choices that are available are anything better than what Ashe County schools can provide,” Holden said. “As a matter of fact, I know it.”
According to the National Center for Education, the average national cost for teaching traditional students is $11,467 while in North Carolina the average cost is $8,433.
In Ashe County, the average cost per student is $9,564, according to Terry Richardson, director of exceptional children and pre-k programs for the Ashe County School System.
“It could affect (the school system) to where if they do these vouchers, students could go to other schools within the county,” Holden said. “So what you could see is a possibility of either private schools or charter schools starting up in our county.”
Education for students with disabilities comes at a higher cost.
“They would need to move out of the public school system in order to get the grant,” Jordan said. “So I don’t know what their particular family budgets would be, but I would imagine it would cover a large portion of private school tuition or the services they are not getting now.”
Last year, Ashe County Schools had 3,136 students. 517 students were part of the Exceptional Children program, according to Richardson.
The grant will be on a first come, first serve basis. Applicants have to be in the public school system at least one semester, be up to standard with their individual education plan (IEP) and be a child whose disabilities require daily service.
According to the bill’s text, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) will have $3.67 million for the program in the 2013-14 school year and $4.34 million for the 2014-15 school year.
Other sponsors of the bill included Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford), Rep. Bert Jones (R-Rockingham) and Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake).