NC Education Savings Accounts Assist Students With Special Needs

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Parents of children with special needs should be aware of a state-sponsored program that can help them pay for nonpublic school education (private schools or home schools) and for other education-related expenses for their children.

In 2017, the North Carolina General Assembly budgeted $3 million to fund an Education Savings Account program for the families of children with special needs. An ESA is like a school voucher because it offers eligible families state-funded access to private school tuition, but unlike a school voucher, the ESA deposits money into an account that families can use for other expenses besides school tuition — for transportation or education-related technology, for example.

Each participating student is eligible for up to $9,000 in assistance. The state administers the program through the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, to which participating families submit expense reports documenting how they have used the money to support their students’ educations. The family accesses the funds through a debit card.

Who is Eligible?

Eligible students must be North Carolina residents with Individualized Education Plans.

“Sometimes we get families who think that their child might need an IEP, but if they don’t have one [when they apply] this program isn’t going to work,” cautions Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach for the NCSEAA.

A family with a child who does not have an IEP but who might qualify for one should contact their local public school system about setting the IEP process in motion as soon as possible, since it takes time for the public school system to determine each student’s eligibility.

In addition to having IEPs, eligible students must be at least 5 years old and not yet have graduated from high school.

Until recently, the ESA program required students to be either rising kindergarteners or first-graders, or to have been enrolled in a North Carolina public school during the school year prior to the one in which they planned to utilize the ESA. The North Carolina State Legislature, however, recently expanded the ESA program to include students who spent the year prior to enrollment attending private school or being home-schooled.

For the 2018-19 school year, about 300 North Carolina families will receive ESAs. Eligible families will be put into a lottery system that determines which students will receive funding. After the 2018-19 school year, eligible students who want to renew their ESAs will be prioritized for funding. A recent program change also prioritizes students with particular diagnoses (including autism, developmental and intellectual disabilities, serious orthopedic impairments, and vision or hearing loss) for funding over students with other kinds of disabilities. 

What Expenses Are Covered?

The ESA covers tuition to private schools. Families can also use it to cover expenses related to tutoring, educational and occupational therapies, educational technology, transportation, testing fees and textbooks.

A family who wants to use the money for tuition to a private school must make sure that the school is registered with the NCSEAA as a participating school in the ESA program. You can find a list of participating schools on the NCSEAA’s website, Because the ESA is new, some schools have not yet registered to participate in the program.

“Talk to the school officials,” Marker says. “Have the school officials contact us. And that way the school can be put on the list.”

Families who wish to home-school students with special needs may apply for ESAs as well, to help pay for education-related supplies and curricula. These families should register as home schools with the Division of Non-Public Education and then apply directly to the NCSEAA for an ESA.

Due Diligence

Marker cautions families who choose to send their children with special needs to private schools to make sure they communicate with the schools about their special education needs. Public schools must adhere to government special education requirements and must communicate in specific ways with the families of children with special needs. Private schools are not required to meet these conditions. Parents, therefore, must ensure for themselves that each school will provide their children with necessary special education accommodations and communicate with them about how their children are progressing.

How to Apply

It is important that you use a computer instead of a smartphone to apply for this program. Go to Click on the “K-12 Grants” tab and go to the “Education Savings Account” link. The application for the 2018-19 school year became available in February. The system prioritizes families who applied before March 1. Within a week of filling out the application, the NCSEAA will email families with further instructions.


Elizabeth Brignac is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She lives in Cary.


Categories: Education, Special Needs