The NC State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA) began accepting applications on October 1 for the Special Education Scholarship Grants for Children with Disabilities program . As of last week, the NCSEAA has received 248 applications submitted by parents wishing to receive $3,000 in taxpayer funds per semester for their special needs children to attend private and home schools in the state.
“We will begin notifying parents of their award status right around November 15,” said Elizabeth McDuffie, Director of Grants, Training and Outreach for the NCSEAA. Those who are awarded the grants will receive reimbursement checks to apply toward tuition, fees and other related expenses incurred for the spring 2014 semester. The program should be able to accommodate roughly 875 students, depending on award amounts.
Private and home schools in North Carolina are largely unregulated , but they do have to comply with minimal state regulations, including providing evidence of fire and safety inspections, immunization records and standardized test results. The Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) publishes annually a list of private and home schools that are in compliance with state law.
NCSEAA is relying on the list that DNPE posted for the academic year 2012-13 , in addition to their lists of recently closed  and opened  schools, as their list of eligible nonpublic schools to which parents can send their children with special needs and receive disability scholarships.
NC Policy Watch previously reported  that DNPE’s list of recognized private schools includes a number that employ just one teacher and a handful of students. The director of DNPE, David Mills, told NC Policy Watch that those schools were just starting out and possibly catering to accelerated students or students with disabilities.
“We are aware of those schools,” said McDuffie, after a long pause when asked whether these schools raise a red flag with NCSEAA. “They do qualify according to the statute.”
The disability scholarship grants program, also known as the smaller of two school voucher programs to be implemented in North Carolina as a result of the 2013 legislative session, was formerly a tax credit program that began in 2011.
In July, lawmakers passed HB 269 , which diverts $6 million of public funds directly to parents of children with disabilities for use at private schools and home schools between 2013 and 2015. An additional $2 million is set aside for the program’s administrative costs.
The NCSEAA said that due to the short timeframe for getting word out about disability scholarships, which are slated to become available January 2014, officials advertised the program through networking channels.
“We sent an announcement to each of the nonpublic schools and also asked the Division of Non-Public Education to share the announcement,” said McDuffie. “We also asked the Parents for Educational Freedom in NC to share the announcement with their contacts—60,000, I believe, is their list, and includes organizations that advocate for special needs children.”
Parents for Educational Freedom NC (PEFNC) has been a vocal proponent of school vouchers and has funneled tens of thousands of campaign dollars to state lawmakers  to push their school privatization agenda.
McDuffie also said they plan to do a news release soon and they are looking for effective ways to communicate with the target populations who may not be tapped into these groups.
Applications for the disability scholarships program are not currently available in hard copy. Applicants must create a login and password online  and go through the application process using a computer. “We can make hard copies available,” said McDuffie, “but no one has requested one to date.”
NC Policy Watch filled out and submitted an application online for a disability scholarship, which readers can view here .
Questions on the application deal with biographical information and eligibility requirements. Students must have had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) established for them by their public school or school district in order for parents to receive reimbursement for qualified expenses.
There is no upper income eligibility limit to receive the award – families from any means can receive the $3,000 per semester to apply toward private instructional expenses. Awards are made on a first-come, first-served basis.
Applicants should choose an eligible nonpublic school on the application, but are not required to do so at the time of submission – they must choose one eventually, however, in order to receive the award.
Parents of students who home school their children will also be eligible to receive the disability scholarship. Those expenses must qualify under “Related Services ,” and include speech language therapy, psychological services, therapeutic recreation, and parent counseling and training, among other services.
The fiscal impact  of the disability scholarship program over a five-year period is projected to be $13.4 million.
Supporters of the disability scholarships program say it’s about choice. Parents should be able to choose the best place for their child to receive an education, regardless of its public or private status.
“We have no position on public or private funds going to education,” said Jennifer Mahan, director of advocacy and public policy for the Autism Society of North Carolina. “Our position is that families with kids with disabilities need a variety of options. We’ve found that because kids on the autism spectrum have unique needs, some families find that public school is not the right setting for them, and they do better in private settings.”
When asked if the Autism Society is concerned about the prospect of using public funds to send at-risk children to largely unregulated private schools, Mahan said, “our parents in general are very involved in their children’s education, including our low-income parents, and they are keenly aware of what goes on in their children’s schools. Our families won’t leave their kids in a setting that isn’t working for them, whether it’s private or public. We want them to have the flexibility to find other options.”
Critics of the program, including Rep. Mickey Michaux, say that the program will drain badly needed funds from the public school system, and that $3,000 per semester would not be enough to fully cover the cost of tuition and fees at a private school, leaving many low-income families out in the cold.
“We’d love to increase the scholarship amount,” said Mahan.
The NCSEAA will begin to accept applications on February 1 for the larger Opportunity Scholarships Program, also known as school vouchers, which will allow any low-income student to take public funds to attend a private school.