Special Education Funding Panel Holds Inaugural Hearing

Jul 11, 2013

State lawmakers are staring down a funding formula that some say is a recipe for a budgeting disaster.

It's the commonwealth's way of paying for federally-required special education services, and it's the subject of a special commission whose recommendations for legislative fixes are due this fall.

At the panel's first hearing Wednesday, lawmakers reminded testifiers they can't do anything about the fact that state spending on special education has been frozen for several years. But what education professionals hope for is some way to tie what they receive in funding to what they actually provide in services.

"The special ed formula has been driving money per kid to all the schools on a flat dollar basis and a flat student count," said Laura Cowburn, who handles the books for Columbia Borough School District in Lancaster County. "So it's a whole mindset that has to change — that we need to start paying for services where the services are delivered."

Cowburn said the special education population in her district has grown to exceed what the formula covers, but her district is limited in the tax revenue it can generate. And Columbia Borough — with its urban, low-income, transient population – is hardly unique, Cowburn told lawmakers.

"Every one of you have a Columbia story and they're all throughout the state and they're all getting into this financial abyss," she said.

Such districts get hit a second time when they make payments to charter schools that enroll special needs students. Those payments are based on the school district's budget, not on the costs of educating the child. Cowburn said a good first step would be creating a tiered system in which payment for special education students is based on the extent of individual needs.

Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) said the commission may recommend such a change.

"If the growth is due to an increase in students with a high level of need, that district will get a proportion, an amount more that they didn't get before," Browne said.