Raleigh, N.C. — Families of special-needs students could receive grants of up to $6,000 a year for therapy outside of public schools under a bill approved Tuesday by a House committee.
House Bill 269 passed the House Education Committee by a 25-10 vote after almost an hour of heated debate.
The bill sets aside more than $3.6 million in the 2013-14 school year to reimburse families who enroll their special-needs children in private schools for the psychological, speech, occupational or other therapy provided to the students.
"Our children are not interchangeable parts. They all have different needs," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe.
The legislation, which next heads to the House Finance Committee, would replace a tax credit for the families of special-needs that lawmakers approved two years ago.
Co-sponsor Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the scholarship program is better than the tax credit since it will be open to more people, but some lawmakers complained that $6,000 doesn't come close to the cost of most private schools, which could prevent low-income families from taking advantage of it.
"Whatever (the cost) is, they're $6,000 closer to being able to afford it than they would without this bill," Stam said.
Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, criticized what he says is a loophole in the bill that would allow parents to choose any private school, even those without any special education capabilities, and then get reimbursed for therapy elsewhere.
"This is a $3,000 grant (per semester) for a parent to use wherever he or she wants," Luebke said, calling it part of a "campaign against public schools."
Bill sponsors said parents are best suited to select the treatment program for their children and that they need options because public schools sometimes cannot meet those needs through individual education plans, or IEPs.
"I've spoken to way too many parents who say their IEP doesn't work," Stam said.
"The focus (of the legislation) is on the child, not who's providing the service," said co-sponsor Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.