South Charlotte

Family's crusade leads to new law

Leslie Petruk burst into tears when she heard recently that House Bill 344 had passed.

The bill, which became law June 30, allows up to $6,000 a year in tax credits to help pay for private education and therapy for children with special needs.

It has been in the works since 2007, and Petruk, whose son Brandon has special needs, has been involved from the beginning.

The bill passed by large majorities in the North Carolina House and Senate. Advocates for school choice say it will help parents pay for tuition and educational services that public schools can't provide.

Leslie and Trevor Petruk, who live in the Johnston Road area near Interstate 485, have spent years speaking in front of legislators and other groups, telling their story over and over in hopes that it would convince others to support the bill.

"The role the Petruks played (in the passing of the bill) was hugely impactful," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. "We're excited for the fact that families like the Petruks have something else they can use to help their children."

In its early days, the bill was informally referred to as "Brandon's Law."

North Carolina is one of 13 states that passed school choice legislation this year. The Wall Street Journal recently declared 2011 "The Year of School Choice," citing another 28 states that have school choice legislation pending.

Quality education

Brandon Petruk, who will be 10 in August, was born with an XYY chromosome and severe apraxia. He is one of a few children with the syndrome who is nonverbal.

Trevor and Leslie Petruk have struggled to ensure that Brandon gets a good education.

Their journey has involved a lawsuit, which they won, against Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools over Brandon's early education, and trying to find an appropriate classroom for him in the public school system.

In kindergarten, Brandon was placed in a mainstream classroom with 21 children at Smithfield Elementary, Leslie Petruk said. He had a fulltime aide, but he often poured rice from one cup to another while the other children did their lessons.

"It was absolutely horrible," Petruk said. "I would cry almost every day on the way to work."

Petruk said private school for Brandon would cost about $20,000 a year, plus the many therapies and other expenses the family pays for.

The Petruks also have two daughters, ages 7 and 12.

The school system finally agreed to place Brandon at Beverly Woods Elementary when he started first grade - this fall he will enter fourth grade. He is in a special needs classroom and joins mainstream students for science, recess and lunch, Petruk said.

"At Beverly Woods it's just part of the culture to incorporate kids with special needs into the day," Petruk said. "The kids there love Brandon and fight over who gets to be with him in science class and sit with him at lunch."

She's watched Brandon blossom, becoming more confident and outgoing.

But Petruk said she worries about middle school, and she said they likely will use the $6,000 tax credit to pay for private school.

"I've already started losing sleep about middle school, but knowing this bill has passed helps me sleep better at night," she said.

More tools available

Allison says provisions of HB 344 complement the public education system rather than working against it. Public schools can't always provide all the help a special needs child requires, he said.

He anticipates that some families - it's estimated that about 15,000 special needs children are served by CMS schools - will use the tax credit to enroll in private school. Others may use it for supplemental outside help, such as therapy.

"We want to make sure we're giving these families every tool available for that child to live life to the fullest," Allison said.

He lauds the Petruks for persevering for years as the bill was discussed and written.

"They weren't just solely focused on their child," he said. "They knew that investing their time and resources would benefit the other Leslie Petruks and Brandons throughout the state.

"We're elated we were finally able to get (the bill) over the goal line."