This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Special education costs are rising much faster in Pennsylvania than state aid — causing local taxpayers to foot most of the bill, while also stretching school budgets thin and increasing inequities between rich and poor districts, according to a new report by a duo of advocacy groups.
The Education Law Center and PA Schools Work found that for every new dollar Harrisburg spent on special education between 2008 and 2016, school districts spent $20.
During that time, districts saw their special education costs rise $1.54 billion while the state chipped in just $71 million.
This report arrives five years after the state implemented a new special education funding formula that was supposed to make life easier for districts. But advocates say lawmakers haven’t sent enough money through the formula to make an impact.
“If anything, the issues with special education funding — of inadequacy and inequity — have actually grown worse over time,” said Reynelle Brown Staley, a policy attorney at the Education Law Center.
Proponents of the new special education formula can regard the spike in special education expenses as at least a partial victory. Advocates said the previous system deterred some districts from providing robust special education services or identifying students with special needs.
So, from the perspective of child advocates, this latest data may suggest some improvement, either because districts are doing a better job of providing services or because families are doing a better job of requesting them.
“Some of the increases I think we’re seeing are a natural consequence of trying to meet the need for services that was previously being unmet,” said Brown Staley.