35 advocacy groups ask legislators to fix special education funding
by Brett Schaeffer
Pennsylvania last year adopted a landmark funding formula for basic education, putting more dollars into the neediest schools and implementing rigorous accountability measures for school districts.
However, special education students have been left out of the equation.
A coalition of groups is now sending the message that it’s time for the General Assembly to approach special education funding with the same sharp eye its members approached basic education funding in 2008.
The state’s new basic education funding formula was based on a 2007 “costing-out” study, conducted by the private education policy consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc. Though the study recommended that special education be funded based on student and district needs, a new funding system for students with disabilities was not part of the 2008 reforms.
Now, using the findings from a new February 2009 Augenblick report, more than 35 disabilities advocacy groups throughout Pennsylvania are rallying support for a bill to reform special education funding.
“In 2008, the General Assembly and the Governor reformed state funding for basic education, based on the 2007 ‘costing-out’ study. Similar improvements are now needed for special education funding if the education finance system is to be whole,” said Janis Risch, executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, in the new report.
The report indicates that nearly 400 school districts are inadequately funding special education, averaging an annual shortfall of almost $1 million per district. Statewide, the total gap in annual funding for special education is $380 million. The average per pupil shortfall is $1,947, based on a total of 195,000 students in the districts that have a funding gap.
The report, which was funded by the Education Law Center, the Disability Rights Network, and The Arc of Pennsylvania, identifies fundamental needs that often go underserved, such as proper teacher training, investment in assistive technology devices and materials, and support programs.
The report also underscores the importance of finishing the funding reforms begun last year and outlines the broader benefits special education funding reform would provide to the entire school community, including reduced teacher turnover, improved classroom culture, and stronger overall education programs.
The School District of Philadelphia, which educates the greatest number of special education students in Pennsylvania, had a special education funding gap of more than $17 million in 2006-07, the year analyzed in the report.
While Philadelphia’s per student funding gap – approximately $500 – is certainly not as wide as special education funding shortfalls in other districts, figures from the Pennsylvania State Data Center show that Philadelphia is coming up short in its outcomes for special education students.
Data Center numbers reveal a 30 percent dropout rate for Philadelphia’s special education high school students – more than double the statewide average. And while more than 300 of the state’s 501 districts have met their Adequate Yearly Progress targets for special education students under the No Child Left Behind law, Philadelphia has not.
Put simply, reforming the special education funding formula can help Philadelphia improve its outcomes. All students benefit when special education students receive instruction that prepares them for meaningful employment, higher education, and self-sufficiency.
To see the full February 2009 report and data on Pennsylvania special education funding, including those for the School District of Philadelphia, go to www.reformspecialedfunding.org.