Monday, February 7, 2011

NC Homeschoolers Should Be Watching State Proposal HR 41

Today, Representative Paul Stam, the new Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, was supposed to introduce a bill he has called one of his legislative priorities:  HR 41, entitled "Tax Fairness in Education."  The gist of this bill is to give a tax credit to North Carolina families who take their children out of public schools for other educational experiences.  While most of the buzz has been around using the credit to offset the costs of enrolling in a private school, this take credit also applies to families who choose to homeschool their children rather than send them to private schools.  The bill provides for an annual state tax credit of $2,500 per child (K-12), and also allows counties to supplement that with up to an additional $1,000 per child.  And the bill provides not just for a deduction, but an actual credit; that is, if the $2,500 (or more) tax credit is larger than the total tax due for the year, the family would actually get a check from the state for the difference.

Some key factor of the current proposal include:
  • The credit, which is proposed to start for non-public enrollment from July 1, 2011 on, only applies to students who spent the previous two semesters enrolled in a North Carolina public school.  So, for the approximately 96,421 students currently in traditional private schools and 81,509 students currently in home schools (NC Department of Instruction figures for the 2009-2010 school year; the current year's figures are not yet available), this bill does nothing for them.  The students would have to be enrolled for a year in NC public schools (dropping to one semester in 2016) before they would be eligible to return to private schools/home schools and still receive the credit.  Stam claims that he is committed to ultimately including all non-public students in the program once the state's economic situation gets better.  For right now, however, the justification for the program is reducing the cost to the state and counties of educating students they are already paying for by getting them to switch to private schools and home schools.  
  • This program is a refundable tax credit RATHER than a voucher system.  In a voucher system, the government pays the private school chosen by the family a certain amount to educate those students. In this bill, the money would be going to the family to reimburse costs instead of going to the schools themselves.  The advantage of the tax credit approach is that it avoids the criticism of government directly funding private schools, and the constitutional issues that raises if the schools are affiliated with a religious faith.  The disadvantage of the tax credit approach is that families have to have enough money up front to pay the school tuition, and will only get some or all (depending on the tuition amount) of that money back from the state in the form of a tax refund.  Thus, tax credits favor more moderate-to-high income families, who can afford to pay tuition and get the tax credit at the end of the year, while vouchers are available to families of all income (although voucher programs often do not pay the full price of the tuition, in which case the family still has to come up with some additional funds).
  • There is an upper income level of $100,000 for a family or $60,000 for a single parent to be eligible for the credit.
  • This does only apply to students in K-12 schools and, of course, students in charter schools would not be eligible because charters schools are a division of NC public schools.
I'm not going to get into the pros or the cons of the bill, because that will depend on people's different political orientation towards government involvement and/or support of private versus public schools and tax equity questions, etc.  I have my opinions, and I'm sure some will agree with me and others won't.

What I do believe, however, is that homeschoolers should be keeping an eye on this bill, because I think if it passed (and I have no idea of the likelihood of that, although it is generally believed that Governor Perdue would veto the bill as it stands now, so the question is whether there is enough support to over ride her veto), it could have some influence on the homeschooling culture in North Carolina.

First of all, there could be a sudden influx of new homeschoolers.  Stam predicts that the bill would initially result in 8,000 - 15,000 students pulling out of NC public schools.  Currently, the split of non-publicly educated students in 2009-2010, according to the NC Department of Public Instruction, is 54% private schools, 46% home schools.  So, 46% of 8,000 - 15,000 students would mean 3,664 - 6,870 new homeschoolers.  So beginning in July 2011, there could be an influx of new homeschoolers that would represent 8% of the existing homeschool population.  

But I think the tax refund might shift the balance between public and home schools, so the number deciding to homeschool could be even larger, especially among lower income families.  When I looked at a number of websites for current private school tuition in my area (not an exhaustive search at all), them seemed to range from a little over $5,000 per person per year for schools like Cary Christian School and Thales Academy to over $19,000 for Cary Academy.  Even a tax credit of $2,500 per student is not enough to pay for tuition at any of the schools that I looked at (although there may be some where that is enough).  On the other hand, because this is a tax credit, not a tax deduction that requires proof of eligible expenditures, home school families may receive tax credit in excess of whatever they spend for this homeschooling costs.  So, for example, if you had a large family of, say, four children, K-12, who were homeschooled, the family would receive a refundable tax credit of $10,000--or, if the family lived in a locale that supplemented the state credit with the allowable extra $1,000 per child, even a total of $14,000.  This could make homeschooling very attractive to some lower income families.

Let me make it clear that I am not opposed to having more homeschool students, and I would love for more lower income families to have an opportunity to home school their children if they think that would serve them better.  However, for all these new home school families to be successful, they are going to need support.  Where is this support going to come from?  The state's Department of Non-Public Education is small and already so understaffed that they ask for volunteers to come in and help them file their paperwork.  In my experience, most of the responsibility for educating new homeschoolers about the laws, curriculum choices, effective homeschooling practices, etc., has fallen upon either churches or non-profit homeschool support groups.  But it is going to be a big job for these organizations to deal with a situation where nearly one out of every ten homeschoolers is brand new--not an unlikely prospect, I think, if the numbers predicted by the bill's sponsor are correct.

My other concern is about government regulation.  In North Carolina, we've had little governmental oversight of our curriculum and educational choices, which has resulted in a wonderfully diverse group of homeschoolers experimenting with all kinds of different approaches to teaching our students.  I fear that once the government starts "funding" homeschooling through these tax credits, however, someone is going to start wanting to have more control over how those public funds are being spent.  I think it would be a MAJOR issue for those of us who have already chosen to homeschool our children, due to  the freedom it gives us to educate our children as we think is best for them as individuals, to have that freedom restricted because of tax credits that we aren't even eligible to receive.

So I'm not saying that we should necessarily support or oppose this bill.  But I am saying that homeschoolers and the groups that support them should be aware of what is going on, because it could end up having a major impact on homeschooling in our state.

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