Nearly 270,000 children with disabilities, one out of every 6.5 students, receive special education services in Pennsylvania’s public schools. Schools provide a broad range of services – from least intensive to most intensive – to those students. That’s why last year Pennsylvania adopted a new funding formula for students with disabilities that directs resources based on the needs of the student and the corresponding level of services provided.
My colleagues and I in the state legislature, along with disability advocates throughout Pennsylvania, supported this new formula as a better, student-focused approach to providing resources to students with disabilities. The new formula applies only to new dollars in the state’s special education line item.
Last year’s addition of $20 million to the state’s special education line item was a good first step to jump-starting the use of the formula.
But we need to take bigger steps if we’re going to close the $380 million special education funding gap that the state identified in 2009. Until last year’s allocation of $20 million, school districts and students had gone six years without any added state-level investments. That’s too long.
The fallout from years of diminished resources is that many of our schools have struggled to effectively include and educate eligible students with disabilities in regular classrooms with supports.
The reality is that educators know how to help students with disabilities to succeed in school. The missing ingredient is often the funding needed to support the proper services and types of inclusive instruction that those students deserve and are entitled to receive.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see Gov. Wolf’s plan to invest $100 million in state special education funding. Those dollars, combined with last year’s $20 million, will be distributed based on the new student-focused formula, which also includes additional considerations for other resource factors, such as poverty and school district size. School districts can use the new state special education funding to improve programs and supports and other best practices that benefit students with disabilities, such as providing curricular adaptation, co-teaching, assistive technology, and schoolwide positive behavior supports.
It’s important to note that nothing in the adoption of the new formula changes the rights of students or the responsibilities of schools under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The governor has also proposed implementing the same special education funding formula for students with disabilities who are enrolled in cyber charter schools. This is the right approach because it directs resources based on need, not on averages and guesswork, which is how the current, flawed system operates.
I’m supporting that proposal as well and believe the next task before the legislature is to bring our brick-and-mortar charter schools under the same funding system in order to ensure that all of our students with disabilities – regardless of the type of public school they attend – receive the services and supports they need to succeed in the classroom.
Providing a high-quality public education for children with disabilities not only benefits those students and their families, but all schools and communities throughout Pennsylvania.