Legislative Special Session – Special Needs Scholarship

As we follow the Legislative special session to address the emergency created by the COVID-19 pandemic, an odd bill stands out in the line-up. HB 332 is a bill, which passed during the regular legislative session but was vetoed by the governor earlier this year, is making another pass with the hope of getting enough support to overturn the veto.

But honestly, what is this bill and what does it do? Essentially, HB 332 would give corporations, as well as individuals, income tax credit for donating money for the purpose of helping private schools accommodate students with disabilities through a scholarship program – the Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program. This scholarship program would be managed by the State Board of Education. As it oddly sticks out, it’s interesting trying to peel back the layers and understand this bill.

To begin, the difference between a public and a private school has a lot to do with accountability and oversight. By definition, a private school is free from government entities looking over their shoulder. For those who don’t like certain aspects of public education, it is their right to pay tuition or seek scholarships to attend a private school. Most people agree that choices in education are important, including the choice to attend a private school.

Okay, so students and parents should have choices, even students with special needs. As a person who serves as an American Sign Language interpreter, I agree wholeheartedly!

But there are a few important questions we need to ask. Should we give corporate donors tax breaks because they donate to the Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program? Does giving an income tax break to corporations impact our revenue? Does it put an undue burden on the State Board of Education?

I would argue yes. Here’s why.

Does giving an income tax break to corporations impact our revenue?

Income tax is how we pay for education. As we give corporations tax breaks, the amount of money we can collect for education goes down. This leaves fewer dollars to cover the needs of the state. So though the state would not be paying for the scholarships directly, we would be paying indirectly in lost revenue.

Does it put an undue burden on the State Board of Education?

This is probably the most important question. Because private schools are not required to follow the rules and regulations that public schools do, there is still a need to provide oversight for the care of special needs students receiving an education at a private school. Each student qualifies for this Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship by having an IEP (students under the Individualized Education Program — supported by IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). Receiving and maintaining an IEP is intense and requires at least five different people. IEPs are evaluated at least every three years and in the case of a private school, would have to be conducted by the local public school. So a public school would still have to be responsible for the educational goals and responsibilities of a special needs student, but would have no say or control over the measures taken to meet the needs of the Education Plan.

In addition to all of that, the State Board of Education would become responsible for this private school’s scholarship program, managing the funds, determining qualified applicants, and conducting any follow up and oversight to ensure proper use of the funds. That all requires additional money that would be paid for by the state.

Hmm….

I have wondered why this particular bill is so important, especially given that we already have the Carson Smith Scholarship Program which essentially does the same thing. The one thing that stands out as a difference between the Carson Smith Scholarship Program (CSSP) and the proposed Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program (SNOSP) is the source of funding. CCSP is funded through the general fund and controlled by the legislature. Funds for the SNOSP but is donation based and is tied to an income tax credit.

I also can’t help but notice that one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Lincoln Fillmore, is a former private school principal.

Studying this bill and trying to understand the real reasons for pushing it through at such a time as this makes me feel all the more certain that we need to be understanding these issues and making decisions together.

If indeed we feel that it’s important to support students with special needs having the choice they would otherwise not have to attend a private school, I would love to understand that point better. I would also love to round out that discussion with appreciating and understanding the efforts made by public schools to equally serve the needs of all students, including those with special needs.

Let us all continue to understand and learn together.

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