Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A bill introduced in the General Assembly would reward lower income families who opt out of the public school system with up to $3,500 in tax credits, a proposal that’s angered Democrats and public-school leaders.
The measure — House Bill 41, Tax Fairness in Education — is designed to pass along the savings reaped when parents whose taxes pay for public schools opt to send their kids elsewhere. Families with taxable income less than $100,000 for married couples, or $60,000 for singles, would be eligible.
In addition to a $2,500 state refund, the bill would authorize county commissioners to issue local tax credits of up to $1,000. The credits would apply only to students who attended a public school during the previous tax year.
The legislation, along with a bill to lift the cap on charter schools, is a key part of Republicans’ school-reform agenda in the General Assembly. School-choice advocates have praised it.
“Many private schools offer excellent educational opportunities for around $3,500, so legislation such as House Bill 41 will put many middle class families within reach of the quality education they rightfully deserve,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “When our state ranks near the bottom nationally in its high school graduation rates, parental school choice measures such as HB41 and others will give these students a real chance in obtaining a solid education."
Although winning praise from conservatives, the tax-credit effort has riled public education leaders. In a Feb. 8 press release, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison and State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said the bill would have a “devastating” impact on public education.
“This move to pull support from public schools has the potential to create a taxpayer supported system of private schools and another system for everyone else,” Atkinson said. “I don’t believe North Carolinians want to undermine their schools. I believe North Carolinians want to support their public schools to make them stronger.”
Harrison said the bill violates the “guiding principles” of the Board of Education. “Our focus is on success for all students and on having a transparent operation with strong accountability for taxpayer resources,” he said. “This would take away from that and create even larger disparities in education without giving most families additional choices.”
In his own press release, the bill’s primary sponsor, Republican House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam of Wake County, chided Harrison and Atkinson for getting involved, and claimed that almost every fact cited in their news release was incorrect.
“I am surprised that the Department of Public Instruction has chosen to insert its opinion on a bill which has such potential for improving education for so many children,” Stam said.
Stam also said that the bill would lead to a net gain for government coffers. According to an unofficial memorandum prepared by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division, the tax credits would generate around $51 million in annual savings for state and local governments beginning with the 2012-13 fiscal year. Before then, it would serve as a net drain of $14.6 million.
The windfall would result from parents who had sent their children to public schools moving them to private alternatives, easing the burden on school districts and state adminstration. The annual expense for state and local governments to send a student through the public school system is around $9,330, a figure that includes child nutrition and average capital cost.
H.B. 41 is currently assigned to the House Education Committee. At press time, it hadn’t been brought up for consideration.
The bill could face a veto from Gov. Bev Perdue. A spokeswoman from the governor’s office said discussions about a veto are premature because a final version isn’t on Perdue’s desk yet.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.