Changes to Education Savings Accounts Become Law, Application Deadline Extended

Expanded eligibility guidelines mean that thousands of additional students may qualify

Raleigh (March 16, 2018) – Today, Parents for Education Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) announces a trio of new changes to North Carolina’s Special Needs Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) have become law, including opening eligibility to thousands of additional students with special needs. PEFNC also shares the news that the application deadline for ESAs has been extended to midnight on Monday, April 2, giving families additional time to apply.

“Thanks to the efforts of Senators Michael Lee and Chad Barefoot, the new Special Needs ESA program is strong and open for business,” said Brian Jodice, Interim President of PEFNC. “By March 1st, 792 families had already submitted applications for 330 slots to participate in the ESA program. Clearly, demand is high and will only continue to grow throughout the final two weeks of March, and all because of this purpose-driven program.”

Originally passed in 2017, the Special Needs ESA program is available for students beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. The program provides up to $9,000 a year for families to pay for educational needs, including private-school tuition, tutoring and teaching, educational therapies, educational technology, and other expenses.

In a bi-partisan vote in February, the North Carolina General Assembly approved three new changes to the ESA program, which Governor Roy Cooper allowed to become law without his signature:

  • Expanded eligibility: Students who are currently enrolled in private school or home school may now be eligible for an ESA. Originally, the ESA program was set up so that, except in certain scenarios, only students transferring from a public school to a private school were eligible. This expansion means that thousands of additional students may be eligible. Students must still document their disability in the form of a public school Individualized Education Program (IEP) and meet the requirements set forth by the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority.
  • First priority for certain students: In the program’s first year, students with certain disabilities will be first priority in receiving an ESA. These diagnoses include autism, developmental disability, moderate or severe intellectual disability, multiple, permanent orthopedic impairments, hearing impairment, or visual impairment.
  • Capped awards for part-time students: The ESA provided flexibility for students, allowing them to utilize half-day public school and half-day private school, if the private school exclusively provides services for students with disabilities. That provision remains and students still have that flexibility. Because these students are in private school for only half of the day, a cap of $4,500 was placed on the total award amount.

Greensboro parent Debby Koonce shared that the ESA funds would allow her son to continue attending the private school where he is flourishing. “We tried a public school for him when he was in kindergarten. It was a nightmare,” she said. “The school administrators, at the time, didn’t understand his special needs and suspended him multiple times. He’s now on his fourth year at thePiedmont School, and he’s absolutely thriving! I’ve been told by his teachers that he is a model student. The small class sizes and specially trained teachers have been exactly what my son needs. He not only loves the school, but he wants to teach math there when he’s grown. We are so thankful that Senator Lee and Senator Barefoot were willing to change legislation for the ESA program to allow current private school students to participate.”

School leaders who serve students with special needs also applauded the expanded eligibility. “These changes will provide great relief for parents struggling to afford a school where they knowtheir children are safe, learning, and happy. They will also allow our school to spend less time fundraising for scholarships and more time on what really matters—the students,” said Erika Merriman, Principal of Southeastern Autism Academy in Wilmington.

“We are so excited that our current and future families may be able to benefit from the Education Savings Accounts,” added Dr. Rob Brown, Head of School at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, a school that offers an Enrichment Center for students with mild to moderate learning challenges. “Over the years, it’s been inspiring to watch Darrell Allison and his great staff at PEFNC lead the way for educational choice in the state of North Carolina. They have been an amazing partner in not only advocating for meaningful legislation, but educating North Carolina parents about the benefits of school choice. Through this recent ESA program, so many more students will be able to benefit from individual instruction based upon their specific diagnosis.”

The ESA law is the third major piece of legislation since 2011 to expand educational options for North Carolina families. The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides up to $4,200 a year for low-income, working-class families to use toward the cost of private-school tuition. The Children With Disabilities Scholarship Grant offers up to $8,000 for families with students with special needs to use on such expenses as private-school tuition, tutoring, and other therapeutic services.

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PEFNC is a statewide organization that supports greater educational options through parental school choice, such as public charter schools and the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Our mission is to inform parents of the benefits of expanded options and empower them to exercise freedom in meeting their children’s needs, regardless of race, national origin, income or religion.