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State’s special education funding rules are slow to change

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s special education funding system is complicated and in flux. But it has generally discouraged districts from identifying too many special education students while rewarding charters that do so.

Until this year, state special education funding for school districts assumed that 16 percent of their students had special needs, allocating money based on that percentage of total enrollment.

A legislative special education funding commission late last year recommended that districts get funding based on the actual numbers, with three tiers of payments based on the severity of a student’s disability. That concept was applied only to the small amount of new special education funding in the 2014-15 state budget.

Charters, however, continue to receive the same amount for each special education student – the District’s average per-student cost – regardless of the actual cost to the charter of services. And they are not required to spend the special education funds on those students.

Last year, the state association of school business officials said state data showed that Pennsylvania charters received close to $200 million for special education students that was not spent on services for them. Charter proponents hotly disputed that analysis while arguing that many charters are reliant on excess special ed dollars to stay afloat.

The legislative commission recommended that the three-tier payment system apply to charter schools, bringing payments more in line with actual costs. But key charter providers, including for-profit operators, successfully lobbied against this.

In addition, when calculating per-pupil district special education expenses to determine payments to charters, the state bases the number of students – the denominator – on the 16 percent rule. So districts with more than 16 percent special needs children pay charters a larger amount than if the actual numbers were used.

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