Disabled Child Tax Credit Subject of Thursday Forum
Local educators hope families will join the discussion on what a new state law could mean for the education of special needs children.
Individuals from both sides of N.C. House Bill 344, better known as the Tax Credit for Children with Disabilities, will come together Thursday to hold a community forum to discuss how the law affects families considering their education options. The event will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. in Owens Auditorium at Sandhills Community College.
Jill Dejak, principal and reading specialist at Longleaf Academy in Southern Pines, helped organize the forum to initiate a local dialogue among the issue’s opposing sides and to give parents an opportunity to learn more about the law.
“It’s so we (private school representatives) can speak to them (public schools), and they can speak to us,” she said. “Parents can get both sides. These two groups have never gotten together face-to-face. This forum will hopefully be a doorway so we can work with public schools. No one organization can do it all.”
The Tax Credit for Children with Disabilities became law last July 1 after it passed overwhelmingly in the N.C. General Assembly. Gov. Beverly Perdue allowed the legislation to become law without her signature.
The law gives parents of children with disabilities enrolled in nonpublic schools a $6,000 tax credit to put toward educational expenses, such as tuition, therapy and tutoring.
The law is the first K-12 private school legislative measure to be implemented in North Carolina, though other states have successfully implemented similar programs.
Dejak said that a discussion about the new law from both sides of the issue is necessary to help local families understand what educational options are available and how all educators of special needs children can move forward.
Kevin Allen, director for exceptional children in the Moore County school system, will also participate in the event as a local representative.
“I’m hoping that [the forum is] going to take away the misconception that folks may have [about the law], whether it’s ours, the community, parents or private schools,” Allen said. “I’m hoping that everyone in this will hear this information at the same time, and that way it will elicit further dialogue, and it won’t be the confusion that’s out there.”
At the forum, Allen intends to explain how the school system already works with families enrolled in both public and private schools to ensure that the needs of exceptional children are met under federal standards that are already in place.
He added that the school system is operating as it normally would with the new law in addressing exceptional children’s needs, but there is confusion about the system's role in the law’s implementation.
‘Up to Parents’
Public schools are already required to ensure equal educational opportunities for students with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975.
The act requires schools to determine what services a disabled student may need for instruction and to provide them. If a school cannot accommodate a disabled student, the school system must pay for a student to attend an educational institution that can provide the necessary services.
Last May, when the bill was being considered, the Moore County Board of Education passed a resolution opposing the legislation, saying the law would undermine the purpose of IDEA by allowing other educational institutions to enroll special needs students without the same oversight that public schools must work under to provide services.
“The responsibility to determine eligibility and to do the testing [on whether or not a student needs specialized services] is on the public schools,” Allen said. “So I think that’s where some feelings come into play.”
Allen said all parents have the option of having their child tested to determine eligibility regardless of what kind of school their child attends, though the school system develops only Individual Education Plans (IEPs), instruction plans and educational goals for academic growth, and receives state funding for students enrolled in public schools.
“It’s up to the parent whether or not they want those services,” he said.
Last year, the Moore County school system received $3,600 per special needs student from the state in supplemental funding to help the system accommodate student needs.
Allen added that the current language in the law does not clearly state who qualifies for the tax credit, and he doesn’t think the school system should have a role in explaining those stipulations to families.
“I don’t believe that’s our place,” he said. “Our place is to work with children to determine what specialized services are needed and to offer those services.”
Dejak agrees that the law has many ambiguities that are confusing for families, but she believes the law is necessary to give parents more educational options.
“It’s putting the power back in the parents’ hands to make a decision for their child,” she said.
Mandate Not Enough
Longleaf Academy is a private, nonprofit school that serves students with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome and severe ADHD, who also have gifted IQs. The school offers multi-sensory instructional techniques that align with the N.C. Standard Course of Study, the same curriculum currently implemented in the Moore County school system.
While Dejak readily admits she is a proponent of public education, she questions why private schools like Longleaf can’t work with public schools to support students with language-based learning disabilities who sometimes get lost in the shuffle of a larger class, and to help teachers who are stretched thin while trying to teach to a variety of learning styles.
“As well-grounded as public school is, these children with significant gaps between their intelligence and their achievement can’t get the needed intervention,” she said.
Dejak believes that her school could work with the school system to help children eliminate these gaps and get them up to speed.
“It eliminates a lot of costs for public schools to educate these children,” Dejak said. “My incentive is to get the child 30 percent or higher growth [in a year], or I have to spend the summer with that child continuing my work.”
Dejak added that she wants her students to return to public schools and succeed, but she doesn’t believe the mandates of IDEA are enough.
“IDEA tells us we have to teach based on a certain level of [students’] performance,” Dejak said. “If we’re still not addressing the specifics for why a student can’t read, then what good is it doing him? You have to teach a dyslexic to read before you can teach him to write and spell.
“Students still get passed on to the next grade,” she continued. “Why? Because we don’t have sufficient accountability measures. That’s not fair to teachers, and that’s not fair to the child.”
Besides Dejak and Allen, the forum will also include Ann McColl, the N.C. Department of Instruction’s liaison to the General Assembly and an opponent to the law; Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, who supported the legislation; N.C. Autism Society director Jennifer Mahan, who helped write the legislation with Rep. Paul Stam’s office; and Canaan Huie, general counsel for the N.C. Department of Revenue.
Dejak hopes the discussion can also lead to future changes in the law that will make it more accessible to the families who would truly benefit from the option.
“It’s difficult because many of the families who would benefit the most don’t make enough in a year to pay taxes,” she said. “[The current law is] not helping the population of kids who I think could be helped — the middle class.”
She said the law’s original language proposed a voucher, not a tax credit, but the legislation was amended in order to gain more support in the General Assembly.
Allen hopes the discussion will get various groups on the same page about serving children with special needs.
“My hope is to educate everybody so they have a better understanding of what the law is,” he said. “Then we can rally around to meet the needs of students in our community, whether it be with us or in the private schools.
“I think most importantly, we should determine how we are providing services that best meet the needs of children in the community.”
For more information about the forum, contact Longleaf Academy at (910) 692-2665.
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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