Educators and advocates told lawmakers Tuesday that the cost of special education services continues to outpace the funding districts receive from the state.
“Clearly as cost grows faster than state funding, we are shifting more of the burden for special education to local taxpayers,” Jay Himes, with the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, told lawmakers Tuesday.
A newly-formed commission met Tuesday in Moon Township to solicit feedback on the Special Education Funding Formula that has been used for the last five years to distribute dollars to schools.
Most who gave testimonies said that the formula is more equitable than former systems. It directs dollars to schools with the greatest need for resources based on the actual cost of services required for each child. A former commission made recommendations in 2013, some of which were enacted and took effect during the 2014-15 school year. Similar to the basic education funding formula, the special education formula is only applied to new funding approved by the legislature.
Republican state Sen. Pat Browne, who chairs the commission, said his takeaway from the more than two hours of testimony was that the formula is working.
“After many years of hearing what we were doing was not working at all, that’s some good news. We need to use this hearing to take in testimony to make it better,” he said.
The commission was reconstituted in June to review the formula. It is tasked with making sure the state is using the correct factors in distributing state special education dollars to students in need of support.
It is not tasked, however, with determining how much more funding public schools need. Nor is it charged with reviewing a potential formula for distributing special education dollars to charter schools.
Overall, speakers gathered in Moon said they need more money from the state. More children are being diagnosed with needs that require special education services and the costs of those services are growing.
But Democratic state Sen. Pam Iovino, who represents parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, reiterated that the commission does not have a mechanism to recommend more special education funding.
“I’m very focused on what the commission’s job is which is that we get a funding formula as accurate and responsive to the needs of determining fairness in the funding and the distribution of it,” she said.
A coalition of 27 education organizations under the name “PA Schools Work” sent a letter to the commission last week saying a review of the formula was needed as the budgets for special education and basic education remain “plagued by inadequate and inequitable funding.”
The coalition recommended the commission ensure adequate funding for school districts. This year, the state increased funding by $50 million, or 4.4 percent. The groups say that inspired hope, but that “data suggests less hopeful results without significant state funding increases.” As the group notes, over the past decade, special education funding from the state has dropped from a one-third share to 22 percent. According to the group, an additional $465 million is needed on a recurring basis.
The groups also recommend that the formula apply to all agencies including charter and cyber charter schools.
Lastly, the groups say the formula has not yet achieved an equitable distribution of state special education funding as not all money is distributed using the formula. It asks the commission to assess the equity of the formula.
Cindy Duch with the PEAL center – Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership – told the commission that cost cannot be a factor when parents and educators advocate for their children. She noted, as many others did, that more funding is needed.
“But we are also well aware of the reality and that decisions are based on resources,” she said.
Duch is a parent who has advocated for her own son who has autism. He is now 24. Quoting another parent she said, “People don’t realize that education for people with disabilities is one area of civil rights where people are expected to negotiate to have the law followed.”
She also asked the commission to create opportunities to hear from other parents.
“I’m the only parent to provide testimony today, but I am far from the only one who needs to tell you about the experiences I’ve had. Families state-wide have experiences they need to tell, some you would hardly believe. I know because I hear them each day when they call into our office, when my colleagues take calls, when we have a parent crying over the phone,” she said.
The commission is scheduled to hear more testimony from educators in Edinboro Wednesday. It is required to issue a report to the General Assembly by the end of November.