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NC funds for private student grants debate revs up

Gary d. Robertson, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- The debate on using North Carolina taxpayer dollars to help parents pay for private school is heating up again as a House committee on Tuesday retooled one current school-choice program for disabled students and legislators this week filed a bill creating a broader grant program.

A bill with two House Democrats and two Republicans as its chief sponsors would offer up to $4,250 per year in public funds for children in low- and middle-income families to attend private or religious schools. Advocates of traditional public schools believe the legislation creating "Opportunity Scholarship Grants" is a dangerous next step toward widespread private-school vouchers that will encourage flight from the state's public schools.

"We see it as a type of voucher program that takes away resources from public schools," said Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher lobbying group. "Public dollars are meant for public schools."

Groups backing educational choice praised the measure, which comes two years after the Republican-led legislature approved a law that provided tax credits of up to $3,000 per semester to pay for students with disabilities for the costs of private school or other daily services that help a child learn.

"While we need our public schools to have all the resources they need for success, we also need every student to have access to schools that can meet their needs, regardless of the educational model," Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said in a news release.

At least 12 states and the District of Columbia provide state-funded school vouchers for qualifying students, which includes children with disabilities in a majority of those states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, a sponsor of the "opportunity scholarship" bill, said North Carolina legislators have a duty to provide students access to a "sound basic education" as the state constitution demands, wherever that education is located. GOP lawmakers and some black Democrats have formed an unusual alliance backing school choice legislation.

"People can call it what they want to — vouchers, scholarships — but we're really doing is trying to create an opportunity and choice for families that don't necessarily have them," said Brandon, who is black.

The bill would set aside $90 million over the next two years, enough to provide grants to as many as 14,000 students, or less than 1 percent of the 1.5 million students in the public schools, according to a bill sponsor.

Grants would be limited to families who make no more than three times the federal poverty level — $70,650 for a family of four, for example. Qualifying children include those entering kindergarten or first grade or attending public schools the previous semester, or whose parents serve in the active-duty military.

Groups on both sides of the private school issue delivered a potential preview of the upcoming debate Tuesday in the House Education Committee when at least three Democrats joined Republicans in voting 25-10 for a bill to alter the 2011 program for children with disabilities.

The measure would repeal the tax credit and replace it with a grant of $3,000 per semester to reimburse parents for expenses. More than 600 state tax returns in 2011 included the tax credit at a value of $1.5 million, according to legislative researchers. Bill sponsors said Tuesday they've heard from families who say they aren't receiving the credit because their income tax bill is too small to benefit fully.

Several Democrats and other anti-voucher advocates said $6,000 in potential grants will do little good if the price of helping the child in a private school setting is two or three times that amount.

The bill "will only serve people who can afford to send their children to private school already," said Christopher Hill, director of the North Carolina Justice Center's Education & Law Project. "Low-income parents will not be helped by this voucher program."

Many private schools will find scholarships for needy students to make up the difference, Brandon said. Parents should be trusted to know what is best for their children to succeed, he added.

"Ninety-nine percent of the parents are not going to send their kids to a school that does not address their needs," Brandon said.