Author photo

Daily Journal

Helping Special Kids Access the Services They Deserve

Dec. 5th, 2008
More |

Today’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Donna Martinez, Carolina Journal Radio Co-Host and Carolina Journal associate editor.

Conservatives are rightly concerned about negative implications of the tax increase President-Elect Barack Obama has promised to impose on “the rich,” particularly the achievers and job creators Fortune magazine dubs the HENRYs (High Earners, Not Rich Yet).

Unfortunately, the tax policy debate has overshadowed the fact that millions of vulnerable American children are facing a more fundamental loss. I call them the TRIGs — children like Trig Palin, who has Down syndrome, as well as kids with much more severe physical and mental impairments.

Trig moved me from the moment I learned the Palins’ story. During her two-month run, Gov. Sarah Palin spoke movingly of the gifts and challenges her son gives her family. She promised that, in her, kids who need unique services and attention would have a White House advocate.

It wasn’t campaign talk. Palin had walked the walk by welcoming Trig with open arms and an open heart. Many women who discover they’re carrying a baby with Down syndrome do the opposite. I hoped Trig would soften hard hearts and penetrate willful ignorance as Americans watched him grow up and as his mom shared his story from the most powerful bully pulpit in the world.

I regret that’s not going to happen, but not all is lost.

In North Carolina, educational quality for kids with special needs has become a focal point. No doubt, some do well in traditional public schools. But many don’t — especially those with severe conditions. Their intense needs simply overwhelm the system. The gap in student proficiency is stark between those with disabilities and those without — a 31 percent gap in math and 33.4 percent gap in reading. The prospect of earning a high school diploma is equally bleak. During the 2007-08 school year, just 56.4 percent of students with disabilities graduated in four years.

A bipartisan group of state legislators is trying to reverse these statistics. They’ve introduced two bills — House Bill 388 and Senate Bill 2059 — to give these kids options through a tax credit of up to $3,000 per semester. The credit would help parents pay for a facility or school outside the public system that better meets their child’s unique requirements. Parents would pay up front for instruction and therapy and claim the credit on their tax return.

Most of us can’t begin to imagine the relief and hope this offers.

Cost to the state would vary depending on how many participate. In its initial analysis of H.B. 388, the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division looked at the universe of kids who might leave the public system to utilize the credit. Mid-range estimates conclude the credit would cost the state $3.3 million per year, while counties would save $6.5 million. Thus, the net annual impact on government spending would be a savings of $3.2 million.

Children currently schooled in private or home settings also would qualify. Fiscal Research used data on special-needs kids who’ve already dropped out of public school to conclude another 578 to 1,156 students would be eligible. Potential net cost for this group ranges from $3.5 million to $6.9 million.

House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, co-sponsored H.B. 388 in 2007. He was among the legislators who joined Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina at a news conference in June. Stam emphasized that while the potential to save money is welcome, the key point is to help parents access services their kids deserve.

Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, who filed S.B. 2059, dispelled the notion the credit represents a debate over public school versus private school. “It goes without saying that in the 21st century, I think we all can agree with the adage that one size does not fit all,” he said at the conference. “When it comes to educating some of our neediest children, certainly that has to be true.”

Both lawmakers are correct. The public school system can’t be all things to all children. It’s impossible. If we deny that reality, special children won’t have the chance to make up for lost time. They’ve already lost the chance for a special advocate in the White House. Let’s not let them lose hope in North Carolina as well.