Proposed legislation to give parents of special needs children tax credits of up to $6000 per year to offset tuition and other therapeutic expenses is starting to roll through the General Assembly again.
House Bill 388 has bi-partisan support. That doesn't mean it is good legislation, though. Under the bill, special needs children who require an individualized education program and who have spent at least two semesters in a public school may have non-public school tuition expenses counted towards a $3000 per semester cap tax credit for their parent(s) or guardian(s).
The bill offers a tax incentive for parents to switch their special needs child out of their public school into a non-public one, one which has instruction for special needs children.
Problem is, only a few children will benefit from this bill: those whose parents calculate that the extra tax benefit will make the private school option affordable where it wasn't before.
Knowing how many students will benefit from this bill is tough to precisely predict, but middle Fiscal Research estimates are that 3000 students will transfer from the public school system as a result of the tax incentives.
That leaves a lot of children behind – well over 95%.
The Department of Public Instruction estimates that over $100 million per year is needed to bring the funding level up to a point where we have an even chance of providing special needs children with an adequate public school education.
The recent Department of Public Instruction request to the General Assembly and the Governor was for $40 million more per year for the Children with Disabilities Supplemental Fund. The Governor gave no new money, the House $6.2 million in a tight budget year.
What is required is big dollars. What we are getting is currently nowhere near enough. One can understand some support for the tax credit bill being born out of frustration that we are letting down our special needs children badly. Many schools don't graduate any special needs children – the dropout rate is 100%. It is a scandal.
But the answer surely doesn't lie with this new legislation. We can't drive or force some children into the non-public system through neglect or tax incentives, while leaving thousands behind in an underfunded public system. This is a creeping privatization. What is needed are real long-term solutions for our public schools, and a political will to find the money for those solutions.
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