The State of Pennsylvania has flat-funded Special Education since 2007-2008. Meanwhile, the gap between Special Education costs and funding continues to grow, and now many local municipalities are being forced to increase property taxes year after year, and cut educational programming and curriculum from which Basic Education and Special Education students benefit in order to finance Special Education programs.
To understand how inadequate Special Education Funding (SEF) by the State of Pennsylvania impacts individual school districts, and the quality of Basic Education programs, as well as Special Education programs, consider the impact to the Upper Darby School District (UDSD), as an example of what is happening in districts across Pennsylvania:
In UDSD, SEF costs are responsible for $4.06 million of the projected increase in costs for the 2013-2014 school year. It is worth noting that the UDSD average Special Education student enrollment is within 0.3 percent of the State average of 15.2 percent for the same time period.
Like districts’ students across the State, some UDSD students’ Special Education needs cannot be served by programs offered through District programs. Therefore, the students are educated in non-district programs to meet the legal requirement of Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA), which sometimes necessitates placement in Approved Private Schools, or Other Private Schools.
State and IDEA pass-through SEF covered less than one third of total SEF costs last year in Upper Darby and left the local taxpayers $18.80 million short of the funds needed for that school year alone. SEF from the State stayed roughly the same over that time period, increasing by less than $0.4 million, including the amount provided from the State Special Education emergency/contingency fund. Annual shortfalls over the past five years have climbed from $9.53 million to $18.80 million, reflecting the fact that UDSD costs for providing Special Education have nearly doubled in the past five years.
Although the example cited above uses UDSD, these realities impact the resources available for Basic Education in all of Pennsylvania’s school districts. As the gap between SEF and costs has grown, so has the difference between Basic Education funding per-pupil spending averages and districts’ total per-pupil spending averages. When districts’ total per-pupil spending averages are reported by the State, the public is led to believe that districts are spending more on Basic Education than they really are spending.
Increasing aid to the most vulnerable students helps provide more fairly for all.
The charter school funding formula exacerbates all districts’ funding challenges, particularly as the formula pertains to Special Education Funding. The fee that districts pay to charter schools is arrived at by dividing the costs for providing Special Education to students who originate from a given district (regardless of where services are provided), by the entire Special Education population in the district, including those students with severe exceptionality of primary disability, who typically do not attend charter schools. The costs of providing for students with severe exceptionality of primary disability typically exceed $25K per year.
Charter schools do not have comparable percentages of students with severe exceptionality of primary disability to almost any traditional school, but they benefit from those districts’ higher district spending average due to the number of actual students with severe exceptionalities.
The costs for SEF, born locally, are unsustainable. Although long-term solutions are needed, and we understand that a special commission has been formed to study the issue and make recommendations, we request that our State legislators increase the line-item for Special Education Funding for all districts for the 2013-2014 school year as an immediate first step toward a long term solution, which would include evaluating funding formulas, and curriculum and instruction. In addition, we expect the State of Pennsylvania to work toward:
• Allowing school districts to reimburse charter schools the actual cost of educating students identified as requiring Special Education, up to the limit of the average per-pupil Special Education costs of the sending school district.
• Creating a funding formula for SEF based on actual costs to traditional districts, so that the costs of SEF can be spread across the State tax base instead of deteriorating local, overpopulated municipalities with finite tax bases.
• Fixing the charter school funding formula for SEF.
• Increasing allocation of dollars to Basic Education, to protect resources for all of the children in traditional school districts, since students with Special Education needs are included in programming that is at risk due to underfunded SEF.
• Ensuring that the number of slots available to districts at the reduced tuition rate at Approved Private Schools is commensurate with the number of students with severe exceptionality.