NC offers debit cards to families of disabled students, but some worry about fraud

Libby Bradford can’t speak and she has trouble walking, but the 8-year-old’s perseverance has inspired other kindergarten students at Immaculata Catholic School in Durham.

Liz Bradford, Libby’s mom, says the private school has helped her child learn, but it doesn’t offer the speech therapy and physical therapy that Libby used to receive as a student in the Durham public school system. So she’s turning to a new state program that provides taxpayer-funded debit cards to parents of students with disabilities to cover education-related services.

North Carolina’s new Education Savings Account program provides parents of special-needs students up to $9,000 a year for private school tuition, tutoring and equipment. The application period opened Thursday.

The program would also pay for more of the therapeutic services that Libby, who has a rare medical condition, used to get for free in the public school system.

“It would be a big blessing to provide to her what she needs and we wouldn’t have to make as many sacrifices,” said Bradford, who is paying thousands of dollars each year on therapeutic services and specialized equipment for Libby.

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Libby Bradford, 8, who suffers from a rare genetic condition, sits at the dinner table with her family and uses a specialized device to communicate through her eye movements on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Durham. Julia Wall

The program is the latest effort by the Republican-led state legislature to expand the ability of families to seek education options other than traditional public schools. Critics say the program is subject to fraud and takes away more money that could be used by traditional public schools.

“It’s very high risk in terms of abuse,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools. “Our public schools are underfunded, where the vast majority of students go.

“Our public schools are better equipped to support students with special needs. We would prefer to see our state invest in public schools to meet the needs of all students, including students with disabilities, as opposed to this risky venture.”

Education savings accounts are among the programs promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group backed by corporations that proposes model legislation for state lawmakers to introduce. North Carolina became the sixth state to allow education savings accounts when it was included as part of last year’s budget.

“I think that the more that we can do to empower parents and empower students with choices to find educational solutions that best fit your individual needs is something that policymakers should be pursuing in this state,” state Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican from Wake Forest, told attendees at a November meeting sponsored by Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

In addition to the ESA program, the state offers grants up to $8,000 a year for students with special needs and private school vouchers that pay up to $4,200 a year for children whose families meet income guidelines.

Families could potentially qualify for all three programs, giving them up to $21,200 to cover special-education-related costs.

“It costs a lot to adequately educate a child and even more when we have children with the most severe disabilities,” said Darrell Allison, president of Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina.

Bradford, the Durham parent, knows how costly it can be to help students with disabilities. Her daughter has BPAN (beta-propeller protein assisted neurodegeneration). Durham Public Schools provided extensive therapeutic services, but Bradford said she pulled Libby out because she was concerned about violent students.

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Cyrus Bradford helps his daughter, Libby, 8, who suffers from a rare genetic condition, walk to the bathroom before bedtime on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, in Durham. Julia Wall

Bradford is already using the state’s $8,000 disability grant to cover tuition costs at the Catholic school. Libby still gets therapeutic services, but the family pays for them.

The new program would let the family “offer the services that the public school system used to provide,” Bradford said, while having Libby benefit from the new school environment.

North Carolina’s program is starting with $3 million for the 2018-19 school year to serve 300 students. But state Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican from New Hanover County, told attendees at a November seminar in Wilmington that he hopes the state will expand the program.

States usually begin ESA programs by serving “sympathetic” groups of students as a way to build public support before expanding to serve other groups, according to Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Welner was one of the authors of a policy brief released in January that says there’s a lack of evidence that education savings accounts work.

“Why is the state pursuing an education reform that has almost no research about the reform itself?” Welner said.

Welner, like other critics of education savings accounts, points to a 2016 audit of Arizona’s program that found $102,000 had been misused over a six-month period.

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In one instance, a parent spent $300 at a grocery store, according to the audit. Two parents spent $3,600 on books and other educational materials, then returned those items for store gift cards they used to buy a snow globe, a sock monkey, a “Walking Dead” board game and other items.

North Carolina will require families to file quarterly expense reports with documentation on how the money was spent. But Poston of the Public School Forum said the new program, like the voucher programs, has few safeguards.

“There’s virtually no oversight and accountability, and this program may be the worst in the lot in accountability measures,” Poston said.

But Allison of Parents For Educational Freedom said he has confidence in the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority’s ability to manage the new program. The statute creating the program says the authority will conduct annual audits and may audit a random sampling of accounts.

“One of the benefits that North Carolina has is that we’re not the first to do it,” Allison said. “We learned not only from best practices of what to do, but also what not to do.

“Am I going to say this program is going to be 100 percent proof from fraud? But given the authority and their track record and other measures that we have in place, we have enough to begin and make an assessment of how we’re doing.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Find out more

The application period opened Thursday for North Carolina’s education savings accounts. Go to for more information.