North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program has gotten a lot of headlines recently, and with good reason. The state’s voucher for private schools is poised to more than double its enrollment, dependent on whether lawmakers OK additional funding in the short session that convened just last week.

But a lesser known school choice program in the Tar Heel State is also experiencing growth. The Education Savings Account Program, or ESA+, is designed to offer educational choice options to families of students with disabilities. The program’s format is similar to a Health Savings Account: Approved families receive a debit card that can be used to pay for private school, tutoring, therapies, school supplies, and more.

According to new data from the NC State Education Assistance Authority, the state agency that oversees the program, ESA+ received 2,974 new eligible applications for the 2024-2025 school year. Currently, 3,358 students are participating. The agency announced on April 29 that award offers for the new school year were sent to 958 new students.

According to a statement from the office of Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, there are an estimated 2,015 applicants on the waitlist for ESA+.

The agency also noted in their press release that demand for the ESA+ program — like for the Opportunity Scholarship Program — has exceeded available funds. Lawmakers would need to allocate more dollars to the program to serve every applicant.

The application figures for ESA+ dwarf participation in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, but the program still offers a vital lifeline to many families and has grown rapidly in recent yearsAccording to data from the school-choice group EdChoice, for the 2021-2022 school year, there were 989 students participating. For 2020-2021, that figure was just 332 students.

“The growth of the ESA+ program derives from the simple fact that the program works,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Parents appreciate the opportunity to tailor their child’s education to fit the special needs of their child. And children are able to access the services they need to develop intellectually and socially. It’s a win-win and people are finding out about it.”

To qualify, students must have an IEP, or Individualized Education Program, with an eligibility determination for at least one of the following: autism, hearing impairment, moderate or severe intellectual disability, orthopedic impairment, or visual impairment.

The options with ESA+ are broader than for the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Allowable expenses aren’t confined to private school tuition alone, but extend to curricula and textbooks, tutoring, educational therapies, technology, and transportation.

Students may qualify for up to $17,000 a year in ESA+ funds, depending on the severity of their disability, but the base amount is $9,000 per year. The program can also be combined with an Opportunity Scholarship. Students also have the option of attending public school part-time at a value of $4,500 each year through ESA+. According to the NCSEAA, the average award amount is $12,120.

Beginning in 2022-2023, the program was funded at nearly $32 million, and the amount is set to increase by $1 million each 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.