News: CJ Exclusives

NCGA Committee Boosts Special-Needs Scholarships

Amount would go from $3,000 per semester to $4,000

A House education committee on Tuesday gave its OK to House Bill 133, a measure increasing the scholarship amount available to special needs students who attend private schools from $3,000 per semester to $4,000. It also approved a change allowing families receiving those scholarships to collect the money in advance rather than waiting for reimbursement.

The latter provision was intended to help low-income families who may not have enough money to pay tuition in advance, said Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe.

Currently, parents receiving the scholarships must show that a disabled child was enrolled in or received services at a private school for 75 days. They must wait until the end of a semester for reimbursement.

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, expressed concerns about students who might receive the scholarship, enroll in a private school, and then withdraw. He proposed an amendment that would maintain the current reimbursement-waiting period. However, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, said Mayer’s amendment was unnecessary because the State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the scholarships, would write rules governing distribution of the funding.

Stam noted that in the rules the SEAA had written rules for the Opportunity Scholarships Program —which provides vouchers for children from lower-income families to attend private schools — are provisions allowing the state to recover money when a child receiving an opportunity scholarship withdraws from school.

Committee members hammered out a compromise amendment stipulating that the SEAA’s rules would require a proportional return of funds if a student withdrew from school before the end of a semester.

Julia Adams of The Arc of North Carolina, a nonprofit that lobbies for the disabled, said she thought the bill was a step in the right direction.

“We think that it’s wonderful that it’s being raised to $4,000 per semester and that that funding will go directly to private schools,” Adams said. “We really believe that that will help with access to the scholarship program.”

Adams also praised the provision allowing families to receive scholarship money in advance. “I think that’s very positive,” Adams said. “For a lot of people who are struggling in our state financially right now … it’s been very difficult to be able to put up the full tuition for private schools so that their students with disabilities could obtain an education. This will really help those families.”

Not all members of the committee were happy with the changes, or the disability scholarships program.

“We’re sending public funds, public dollars to private schools,” said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham. “It’s just wrong to send public funds to private schools. But it’s also wrong to send money where there’s not a special education program at that school.”

The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.