A budget proposal now before the state legislature would bring us much closer to providing adequately funded schools across Pennsylvania. But on the issue of funding for special education, disability advocates still have a long row to hoe.
The recent "costing-out" study prepared for the state legislature showed that, just as with regular education, the state is falling far short of the need in its funding of special education.
If Pennsylvania started to fund public schools adequately overall, most students with disabilities would be better off. Students with disabilities benefit from quality teachers, smaller class sizes, safe facilities, and so on.
But these students sometimes have extraordinary needs that are not met through the regular educational program alone. Additional resources are needed to properly fund special education staff, services, and supports.
School districts in poorer communities have difficulty raising funds from local sources to support the high costs of special education. State and federal government must play a greater role in ensuring adequate funding levels for students in all districts.
But current levels of federal and state funding do not cover all of the costs of special education. For the 2007-08 school year, federal funding for special education in Pennsylvania was $400 million and state funding was about $1 billion. Based on the costing-out study, another $1.6 billion is needed. Either local districts are paying for these costs, or the services are not being provided.
The costing-out study recommended that the cost of a quality education for all students should be based on the average student in the average school district, with additional funding over the base for the extraordinary costs of helping students with disabilities to achieve under state academic standards. Similar adjustments over the base cost were recommended for students in poverty and English language learners.
But neither federal nor state funding for special education is distributed based on actual student needs in school districts. The state simply gives out a fixed amount for each district with small annual adjustments for total student enrollment and local wealth.
Gov. Rendell's proposed funding reforms implement many of the recommendations of the costing-out study. State revenue for underfunded districts would increase by $291 million in 2008-09 and $2.6 billion over six years.
But the new funding system does not implement the recommendation of the costing-out study to directly consider the needs of students in special education as part of the basic education formula. Instead, the governor has proposed to maintain the existing funding system for special education, at least for 2008-09, increasing the state appropriation 3 percent.
Disability advocates are asking the governor and the General Assembly to make a firm commitment to work with them over the next six months to repair the funding system for special education.
The Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign recommends this commitment be represented in statutory language to accompany the 2008-2009 state budget.
"While we support the governor's proposal and urge its adoption," said Sallie Lynagh, chair of the VALUE Coalition, "it is critical to our community that