By John Finnerty
CNHI HARRISBURG BUREAU
HARRISBURG — The state hands out special education dollars under a flawed formula that gives schools the same amount of money, regardless of how many students need services or how intense and costly those services are, lawmakers said. It is a problem that has shortchanged school districts year after year, with some districts having to absorb in excess of $1 million a year in added costs to subsidize services that are not covered by state dollars, an analysis done on behalf of the state Legislature found.
To compound the problem, the state has frozen funding for special education for the last six years.
The shortfall is important because it drains dollars that could be used to help teach other children. And the shortfall also creates an incentive for school districts to underestimate the care required to provide appropriate help for children with special needs, advocates warn. How often, if ever, that happens is unclear, though.
Jennifer Zufall, executive director of The ARC of Cambria County, said that what muddies the water is that parents who are fighting to get their children every possible type of support may become frustrated if school officials refuse anything or limit how often the service is offered. It would be difficult to know if there are any school officials who are trying to deny special education services because of costs, Zufall said. The law is clear that the schools must provide the services that are necessary so no school official will admit that cost is driving decisions about how to help a special education student.
The best way to eliminate the tension between financially-pressed schools and parents of special needs children would be for the state to adequately fund special education, said Brett Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, one of the leading advocacy groups on this issue.
A legislative commission that held its first meeting this week will try to figure out the best way to do just that.
The state distributes special education dollars based on the assumption that 16 percent of students require extra services. Statewide, only 15.2 percent of students are receiving special education services. But, 19 of 55 rural Pennsylvania school districts examined for this story had special education populations comprising more than 16 percent of their enrollment, according to analysis of date compiled by the Department of Education.
The state funding fails other districts as well, because there is little baked into the formula to acknowledge that some special education students require very expensive support, said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, one of the lawmakers appointed to the special education funding commission.
One of the key reforms that the commission will examine will be the development of a three-tiered system for paying special education bills, Longietti said. Under this plan, the state would be able to pay more for those students who require more services, Longietti said.
One challenge is determining how to do that in a way that makes sense without creating a system that encourages schools to begin assigning expensive special education services to students who don’t need them.
The special education commission voted to hire Baruch Kintisch, the former director of policy advocacy for the Education Law Center, as a consultant to help it develop a new funding formula. His compensation has not been set.
The commission has until Sept. 30 to come up with a report for the Legislature. But how important the commission’s work becomes will depend on what’s done with it, Schaeffer said. Those efforts will not do much good unless the state budget also includes an increase in special education funding, he said.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.
The following is the estimated cost to school districts above the amount provided by the state for special education, using data from a study on special education costs commissioned by the General Assembly and data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education Bureau of Special Education. “No shortfall” means the study found that the district had received adequate funding to pay its special education bills.
Crawford County: total shortfall among all districts — $2.3 million a year
Conneaut — $1.25 million
Crawford Central — $813,000
PENNCREST — $281,000
Mercer County: total shortfall among all districts — $5 million a year
Commodore Perry — $271,000
Farrell — $356,000
Greenville — $453,000
Grove City — No shortfall
Hermitage — $389,000
Jamestown — $278,000
Lakeview — $836,000
Mercer — $925,000
Reynolds — No shortfall
Sharon — $620,000
Sharpsville — $525,000
West Middlesex — $555,000
Statewide, 15.2 percent of students are eligible for special education. Schools receive special education funding based on the assumption that 16 percent of the population qualifies for services. The following is the percentage of students who are provided special education services in Crawford and Mercer counties.
Conneaut — 15.7 percent
Crawford Central — 17.6 percent
PENNCREST — 16.6 percent
Commodore Perry — 20.4 percent
Farrell — 19.2 percent
Greenville — 17.6 percent
Grove City — 10.3 percent
Hermitage — 12 percent
Jamestown — 16.3 percent
Lakeview — 14.9 percent
Mercer — 18 percent
Reynolds — 14.8 percent
Sharon — 19 percent
Sharpsville — 11.8 percent
West Middlesex — 18.3 percent