This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Education Law Center, which advocates for students, is urging a re-elected Gov. Wolf to increase state special education funding by $100 million, basic education by $400 million, and early childhood education enough to support 10,000 additional 3- and 4-year-olds in quality preschools.
It also wants funding for early intervention programs for infants and toddlers and additional money for 3- to 5-year-olds who have disabilities.
ELC sent the governor a letter, which is signed by numerous advocacy groups and individuals, including attorneys who represent students with disabilities who are seeking to make sure they get the services from their school districts to which they are entitled.
Since 2008, state support for special education services has plummeted, while costs have increased, placing the burden on local districts that can’t afford to keep up.
A study last year by ELC 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’s increase during that period was just $71 million.
“Since 2008, local districts have borne more than 95 percent of the increased costs of special education services, the equivalent of $1.49 billion that had to be raised in local taxes,” the letter to Wolf states. “Over this same period, the state share in special education funding has declined from roughly one-third to less than a quarter. Even with significant local funding increases, most districts still lack sufficient resources to ensure that students with disabilities are provided the services they are legally entitled to receive.”
It says that, currently, there is a $3 billion gap between what is needed and what is provided for special education services across the state.
ELC also advocated for “tiered” special education funding, which allocates money per student based on the severity of the disability. A Special Education Funding Commission in 2013 recommended such a system, but it was only adopted for new money, not the great bulk of the funds. And charter schools still receive one amount per special education student regardless of how severe or expensive the disability is, an amount that can be two or three times the amount for regular-education students. Studies have shown that many charter schools enroll students only with less-severe disabilities, allowing them to collect excess funds. The charter law does not require special education funding to be spent on special education students.
Efforts to reform this system have stalled in Harrisburg; charter operators are reluctant to give up this source of funding unless other aspects of the law and funding system are also revised. In the meantime, enormous payments to charters for their special education students have become an increased burden on many school districts, including Philadelphia.
ELC’s 2018 report notes that since local districts have been forced to absorb so much of the soaring special education responsibilities, spending inequities among districts have worsened.
It adds: “The state’s basic education funding system compounds the resource challenges that schools face in meeting the needs of students with disabilities. … Basic education in Pennsylvania suffers from the same funding flaws as special education, among them, persistent state underfunding, low state share, and over-reliance on local district wealth.”
Pennsylvania ranks 46th among the states in the percentage of education dollars provided by the state. It also has the largest gaps in spending between its wealthiest and poorest districts of any state.
“Providing students with disabilities the resources they need requires that we address both basic and special education funding,” the report says.