Eye on special education
Corbett signs bill to devise a formula for funding special education services
By Brett Schaeffer
Pennsylvania’s long-broken system for special education funding and accountability is about to receive a major overhaul.
Gov. Corbett recently signed into law a bill that establishes a legislative commission to develop, for the first time in the commonwealth, a funding system for special education that uses accurate student counts and addresses actual student needs. It’s called Act 3, formerly known as House Bill 2.
The Education Law Center and advocates from 39 Pennsylvania organizations supported the new legislation and worked for years to see it enacted.
“This is historic,” said ELC executive director Rhonda Brownstein.
“The commission will outline a much-needed approach for funding special education in Pennsylvania, one that takes into account accurate data and real student needs.”
This crucial reform of Pennsylvania’s special education funding and accountability system would not have occurred without the sustained efforts of dozens of advocacy organizations.
An identical measure nearly passed in 2012, but unrelated special interest groups co-opted the bill with last-minute amendments that caused the bill to stall. State Rep. Bernie O’Neill (R-Bucks) and Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) were the sponsors of the 2012 bill. Advocacy groups urged O’Neill and Browne to reintroduce the legislation this year and then helped to secure unanimous passage.
The legislative commission that will form as a result of the bill will begin work at the end of May and make its recommendations in September.
Commission members will include the chair and minority chair of the Senate Education Committee, chair and minority chair of the House Education Committee, two legislators from each of the four party caucuses, the secretary of education, secretary of the budget, and deputy secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education. O’Neill and Browne are considered to be likely appointees.
Factors that will be considered in the funding distribution formula include three cost categories for students with disabilities; a weight and student count for each category; and district-specific variables for student enrollment, poverty, tax effort, and cost of living. Three-year averages are used for many variables, ensuring more stable funding levels for school districts.
The funding formula established by the commission will be applied to any new dollars added to the state’s special education budget line item.
Districts could use any new state special education funding to improve programs and supports, and other best practices that benefit students with disabilities such as meeting state and federal performance indicators and providing curricula adaptation, co-teaching, assistive technology, and schoolwide positive behavior supports.
Nothing in the bill, however, will change the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, known as IDEA, or the authority of the Individualized Education Program and IEP teams for student placement.
Enactment of this special education bill puts the conversation about education funding formulas back on the table in Harrisburg.
Members of the Education Law Center and other advocacy organizations who supported the bill are now vowing to continue pushing the state to adopt a sound funding formula for all of its public school students. A fair, accurate, and transparent funding formula would direct dollars based on student and school district characteristics, with the goal of ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s public school students have the resources necessary to meet state academic standards.