Demand for special-needs school-choice programs jumps 44% in one year | Eastern North Carolina Now | In the 2021 state budget, lawmakers combined the state's two school-choice grants for special needs students into one program.

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is David Bass.

    North Carolina's new combined program for students with special needs has seen a 44% leap in demand comparing the current school year with the previous one, according to data presented during an Oct. 5 meeting of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

    The numbers - from the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority - show that 4,254 awards have either been paid, are ready to be paid, or are expected to be authorized in the near future for the 2022-2023 school year. That compares to 2,957 awards for the 2021-22 school year.

    Prior to the current school year, two separate support programs were available for students with special needs attending schools of choice - the Children with Disabilities Grant and Education Savings Accounts. The 2021 budget combined both programs into one - now known as ESA+ - to ensure adequate funding and reduce waitlists.

    Andrea Poole, the NCSEAA executive director, told lawmakers the original two separate programs were confusing for families applying and difficult for her state agency to administer.

    "For parents with students with disabilities, they had to decide which program to apply to. Some parents of students were eligible for both programs, and then they had to manage two different sets of program rules," Poole said.

    The initial funding for ESA+ was $31 million for the 2022-23 school year, but the program got an additional shot in the arm with the 2022 budget update approved by lawmakers - to the tune of $16.3 million.

    Under the ESA+, most students are awarded $9,000 annually to be used for tuition and fees at private schools, tutoring, educational therapies, curriculum, or technology. Students with certain designated disabilities are eligible for $17,000 a year.

    "The jump in in enrollment for the Special Needs Plus program is not surprising. It's a program that allows parents to help meet the specific needs of their special needs child," said Dr. Robert Luebke, senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation's Center for Effective Education. "Anytime we can empower parents to help meet the educational needs of their children, it will be a home run. Parents, students and policymakers should all be smiling - the program is working.

    In addition to changes to the special-needs-focused programs, the new budget also increased support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. That program is based on financial need and allocates up to $6,168 per student to attend a school of choice.

    The budget put an extra $56 million into the reserve fund for the scholarships. The spending plan also raises the income limit to qualify from 175% of the federal free- and reduced- lunch program amount to 200%. The change means that a family of four could qualify for the scholarship earning up to $102,676 per year, while the previous upper limit was $89,842.
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