Using North Carolina’s New ESA Program to Support Students With Disabilities

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In recognition of National School Choice Week this week, we’re publishing a series of guest blog posts about various school choice issues. This post, written by North Carolina State Sen. Michael V. Lee, is the second of three. For more general information on school choice across all 50 states, be sure to see our comprehensive list of resources

As a father striving to meet the unique educational needs of four children, I have experienced many different types of school settings — traditional public, private and charter schools. I have learned that education is not one size fits all, especially when it comes to children with disabilities. It has been a personal goal of mine to establish a program in North Carolina designed to specifically support the education of students with disabilities, and I am excited to tell you about North Carolina’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program. Created through a provision in the 2017 state budget, this program equips parents with more options so they might better meet the individual educational needs of each of their children.

Through North Carolina’s ESA program, eligible students with disabilities can receive up to $9,000 each year for specified educational expenses. Funds are distributed to the student’s parents quarterly on a debit card and must be used for eligible expenses, such as private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring and transportation, among other educational services.

One of the unique features of North Carolina’s program is that it allows students with the greatest needs to participate in both the ESA program and the state’s two scholarship programs (similar to voucher programs) — the Opportunity Scholarship Program and the Disabilities Grant Program — simultaneously. This means some students may receive over $20,000 per year from the programs, allowing them to fully customize their education.

The North Carolina ESA program utilizes multiple fraud prevention devices to maintain accountability and integrity, and ensure that state dollars are supporting students with the greatest needs. Parents must sign a written agreement that outlines purposes for which ESA funds can be used, and there are specific purchases that cannot be made using ESA funds. Additionally, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, the entity responsible for administering the program, must verify the eligibility of a minimum number of applications each year and must conduct annual audits of accounts to ensure compliance.

With any new program, the challenges we face going forward will largely focus on ensuring that this program operates efficiently and effectively. As our first cohorts of ESA recipients progress through their education careers, we will be soliciting feedback to make changes to the program to ensure each student is receiving the benefits needed to fully support their individual needs. I am proud to have helped create an ESA program in North Carolina, and truly believe that our students will benefit from being able to fully customize their education experience.

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