Individualized Education Accounts: Be Informed and Be Warned

/ September 27, 2016

By Sherry A. Wilds

Sherry Wilds is the senior staff attorney with Disability Rights Tennessee. She primarily handles special education and disability discrimination cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act with an emphasis on systemic issues in Tennessee. Before becoming an attorney, she taught in public schools for 10 years, worked as the director of education in a day treatment program, and served as an education diagnostician at the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt.

A new program will go into effect in January 2017 that allows certain qualifying students with disabilities to use allotted state education dollars toward tuition, services, curriculum, computer hardware and other expenses that may be incurred either in private school or in homeschooling. Although this may, at first, sound like the answer for families who are struggling with their school district to get appropriate services, the Individualized Education Account (IEA) program has limitations that can affect the protections and services for students with disabilities. Parents considering using this option must be informed and be aware of possible out-of-pocket expenses for their children to get the services they need. Registration for this program is open now as long as the student qualifies.

Only students with certain disabilities are eligible. The child must have as a primary or secondary disability on their Individualized Education Program one of the following:

  • Autism
  • Deaf-Blindness
  • Hearing Impairments
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Orthopedic Impairments
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairments

In addition, the student must have an active IEP at time of application to the IEA program and must have been enrolled in a Tennessee public school for at least two full semesters immediately prior to the date the student plans to enroll in the IEA program. There are some exceptions to this rule, which are found at

So, what does it mean for the student with a disability to be enrolled in this program? It means that families can use state and local dollars (this year a little more than $6,000) for approved expenses, if they agree to remove the student from public school. Parents must also agree in writing to waive rights under special education laws (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act). These IDEIA rights include such rights as disciplinary protections, a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that hold the school responsible for addressing goals and services to meet the child’s individual needs. Once a child is enrolled in the IEA program, that child is no longer in special education at all. If the student returns to public school, the parents will have to ask the school to evaluate the student. The student will then have to go through the evaluation process again. If the student already has had testing that is current, the school may choose not to require additional testing for readmission into special education. However, delays in getting services and creating an IEP once the student is re-enrolled seem likely.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) may apply to some private schools that get federal funds. Section 504 is an antidiscrimination statute that provides certain protections for students with disabilities but does not have the specific requirements of IDEIA. Parents who are considering enrolling in the IEA program will need to review in detail the requirements, restrictions, and waiver of rights before signing the agreements that can be found on the Tennessee Department of Education website listed below.

Students who participate in the IEA program and are interested in the postsecondary STEP UP programs in Tennessee, which are Vanderbilt’s Next Steps program, Lipscomb’s IDEAL, Union University’s EDGE, the University of Memphis’ TigerLIFE, and the University of Tennessee’s UT FUTURE, will need to review the requirements and contact the coordinators for those programs to determine whether the students are eligible for scholarships and admission.

Admissions guidelines for these programs are available online. Contact information for these programs can be found at:

These programs are designed for students with intellectual disabilities who could benefit from on-campus experiences, interaction with college-age peers and additional education to be able to transition to employment and a more independent life. Students may be able to access IEA funds to help pay for these programs. However, if families are considering using IEA funds for STEP UP programs, they should contact the IEA team listed below to discuss their options.

The IEA program may benefit some students and families who wish to homeschool or place their eligible child in a private placement by providing supplemental money to reduce their expenses. It is doubtful that the state and local dollars would be enough to provide the full amount needed to adequately educate students with the listed disabilities that enable them to be eligible for this program. I would encourage parents to read the information on the website. (And there is a lot there.) They also should discuss their options and special education rights with trusted educational professionals, attorneys, and/or advocates who understand special education and the IEA program.

To get the necessary detailed information about the IEA program, including registration and deadlines, go to:

If you still have questions after reviewing the above information, you can ask questions by calling or emailing the IEA team at the Tennessee Department of Education at (615) 253-3781 or

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