It just got easier for children in North Carolina to qualify for a Special Needs Education Savings Account.

ESAs, established by the N.C. legislature in 2017, provide up to $9,000 annually to families with children suffering from autism, visual or hearing impairment, developmental and intellectual disabilities, and multiple orthopedic impairments. 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.

In February, legislators tweaked the law, prioritizing children with more severe disabilities and capping awards for students who attend private school part-time. Additionally, lawmakers expanded the program to include children already enrolled in private or homeschools. Originally, ESAs were mostly limited to students transferring from a public to a private school.

The new rules kicked-in Friday, March 16.

The change means thousands of additional students may be eligible, Brian Jodice, interim president of Parents/Partners for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, told Carolina Journal.

“I think this is the next step in our state doing the right thing for our families and our students,” Jodice said. “If you look at what’s happened here in North Carolina over the last seven or eight years in education reform, every measure that’s been passed has been purpose driven.”

ESAs, alongside Children with Disabilities Scholarship Grants and Opportunity Scholarships, provide low-income and working class families more educational options, Jodice said.

Disabilities grants, established in 2011, provide as much as $8,000 annually that families can use for private school tuition, tutoring, and some educational therapies. Opportunity Scholarships, passed into law in 2013, offer up to $4,200 for low-income families who don’t necessarily have special-needs children.

ESAs will take effect at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

In certain cases, families already receiving a disabilities grant may also apply for ESAs and Opportunity Scholarships, Jodice said.

“We have heard from countless families with students with special needs, and what they’ve expressed is that there is a lot that comes with the needs of educating their children. Many times [the cost] can get into the tens of thousands to really ensure that a child gets what he or she needs from an education standpoint.”

The ESA application period opened Feb. 1 and closes April 2. By March 1, 792 families had applied. As of March 16, it was up to 921. The state will issue only 330 ESAs.

Clearly, the demand is high — and will only continue to grow, Jodice said.

“It’s another marker in our state putting down our dedication to students and our ability to provide families with some educational choice, and the chance to continue to be a national leader in education reform. North Carolina should be proud of that.”