Pa. needs a well-designed, well-funded special education funding formula
The Special Education Funding Commission wrapped up a series of four public hearings to evaluate how special education money is distributed in Pennsylvania last week.
The commission was originally established by Pennsylvania lawmakers in 2012 and came up with a formula that is sensitive to the special education needs and costs of various districts. In 2014, the commission’s formula was adopted as a method to distribute new state special education funding to school districts.
Earlier this year, five years after the formula’s adoption, the commission was reconstituted to “determine if the formula and the factors used are meeting their intended goals.”
Making sure that special education funding meets its intended goal of serving the needs of students with disabilities is a matter of critical concern to the Education Law Center (ELC). Fulfilling our mission of ensuring that all Pennsylvania’s children have access to quality public schools requires that the students with the greatest educational need receive the resources they need to succeed, regardless of the educational or societal advantage with which they enter school.
At Tuesday’s hearing, ELC testified on the effectiveness of the formula and recommended changes that would better reflect the needs of the most vulnerable students with disabilities, many of whom live in poverty and/or are students of color. We also recommended that the formula take into account the unique needs of non-English speaking students with disabilities whose districts require additional money for translation services. We are hopeful that legislators will make needed adjustments to the formula to concentrate funding where the needs are greatest.
But focusing on how special education dollars are distributed, while critically important, ignores the elephant in the room: the state’s dwindling share of special education funding.
Pennsylvania’s legislative leaders are in agreement that funding education is critical. Yet the state budget does not reflect this. Pennsylvania’s financial support for special education has failed to keep up with growing student need.
In an updated analysis of a report issued by ELC and PA Schools Work last fall, we found that between 2008 and 2018, the total cost of special education in Pennsylvania increased by $1.7 billion, or 58%. Meanwhile, the state increased special education funding by only $95 million, or 10%. To fill the gap, districts had to come up with a 70% increase in locally designated funds for special education.
The state’s growing reliance on local funding is unsustainable and forces painful choices on localities. From a legal perspective, because students’ special education needs are not being consistently and fully met, the state is failing to meet its obligation to ensure that students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education guaranteed to them by law.
We continue to hear about students from across the state who are not receiving the services they need and are entitled to: One boy did not attend school for more than a year because his district did not provide him with an aide. A girl was suspended over and over because her behavior support plan was not implemented correctly. Another girl with physical and neurological disabilities fell behind academically and socially because the school could not hire the nurse she needed. And a boy had to travel for hours to get the speech and language services he needed.
These are just a handful of the stories we hear from our clients, not to mention the hundreds of children who are misidentified or unidentified because they come from severely underfunded school districts that lack effective evaluation processes.
The pace of growth in total district special education costs means that even the state’s recent $50 million increase in special education funding for 2019-20 is unlikely to reverse the decline in state share, nor will it provide students and school districts the resources they need. Statewide special education costs have been growing by about $200 million per year. For the state to meaningfully boost its share of support, recurring annual increases in state aid for special education of $100 million or more are needed.
We urge the Special Education Funding Commission to advocate for measures that improve the fairness and effectiveness of the special education funding formula. At the same time, in order to provide students with disabilities the education they need, it is clear that the legislature needs to commit to significant, recurring increases in state special education funding.
Reynelle Brown Staley is policy director for the Education Law Center, a nonprofit, legal advocacy organization with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, dedicated to ensuring access to a quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania.