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Pennsylvania formula for special education funding unworkable, experts say

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'Breaking up really gives them some one-on-one,' says learning support teacher Nicole Williams. Williams helps a student with his schoolwork in his first grade classroom at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The classroom is broken into several pods so students can go at different paces and receive the one-on-one help of learning support teachers if they need it.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'Breaking up really gives them some one-on-one,' says learning support teacher Nicole Williams. Williams helps a student with his schoolwork in his first grade classroom at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The classroom is broken into several pods so students can go at different paces and receive the one-on-one help of learning support teachers if they need it.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'There's a big span of ability,' says learning support teacher Nicole Williams of the first grade class she provides assistance to at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion. The class is grouped into several pods of students, with Williams working in the classroom with a learning support paraprofessional and the main teacher. The teacher will give some students extra work so they can continue ahead in a lesson, 'While we review and review and review,' says Williams. A first grade student in Williams' pod writes in her journal during class at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'There's a big span of ability,' says learning support teacher Nicole Williams of the first grade class she provides assistance to at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion. The class is grouped into several pods of students, with Williams working in the classroom with a learning support paraprofessional and the main teacher. The teacher will give some students extra work so they can continue ahead in a lesson, 'While we review and review and review,' says Williams. A first grade student in Williams' pod writes in her journal during class at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (far right), 23, of McClellandtown, reaches to help a student perform an activity with one-on-one paraprofessional Cheryl Angelo (center in purple), 42, of Uniontown, in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. “It’s what I call a bare-bones operation,” Albert Gallatin School District Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (far right), 23, of McClellandtown, reaches to help a student perform an activity with one-on-one paraprofessional Cheryl Angelo (center in purple), 42, of Uniontown, in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. “It’s what I call a bare-bones operation,” Albert Gallatin School District Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits by himself at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. More than one-fifth of Albert Gallatin School District's students are identified as special education. There are many things – like iPads and smartboards or additional teachers and tutors – that could help students improve or help with early identification, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits by himself at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.  More than one-fifth of Albert Gallatin School District's students are identified as special education. There are many things – like iPads and smartboards or additional teachers and tutors – that could help students improve or help with early identification, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A life skills student holds tight to his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (left), 29, of Smithfield, and Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (right), 23, of McClellandtown, as they help him go from his physical therapy session to music class in his walker at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. “It’s what I call a bare-bones operation,” Albert Gallatin School District Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A life skills student holds tight to his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (left), 29, of Smithfield, and Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (right), 23, of McClellandtown, as they help him go from his physical therapy session to music class in his walker at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. “It’s what I call a bare-bones operation,” Albert Gallatin School District Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - One-on-one paraprofessional Leslie Krater, 54, of McClellandtown, helps a life skills student during music class at at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. 'We work on behaviors, staying on task to do his work. We work with social skills,' says Krater of working one-on-one with the student.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>One-on-one paraprofessional Leslie Krater, 54, of McClellandtown, helps a life skills student during music class at at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. 'We work on behaviors, staying on task to do his work. We work with social skills,' says Krater of working one-on-one with the student.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'We don't have the equipment for a proper Life Skills class,' says Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (left), 23, of McClellandtown, who spends out of her own pocket to provide some supplies and experiences for her class. Dupont and physical therapist Regina Jones (right) hold out a toy bus and a laminated balloon cut-out to encourage a student to take a few steps during his physical therapy session at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'We don't have the equipment for a proper Life Skills class,' says Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont (left), 23, of McClellandtown, who spends out of her own pocket to provide some supplies and experiences for her class. Dupont and physical therapist Regina Jones (right) hold out a toy bus and a laminated balloon cut-out to encourage a student to take a few steps during his physical therapy session at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A life skills student winces as his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (right), 29, of Smithfield, and physical therapist Regina Jones (left) help him with a physical therapy session at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. White helps the student incorporate his treatments, eating, hygiene, and different forms of therapy while at school,
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A life skills student winces as his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (right), 29, of Smithfield, and physical therapist Regina Jones (left) help him with a physical therapy session at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. White helps the student incorporate his treatments, eating, hygiene, and different forms of therapy while at school,
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A life skills student at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion lies on his classroom floor as his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (top), 29, of Smithfield, physical therapist Regina Jones (left), and fellow life skills student (right) help him with a physical therapy session on Thursday, April 3, 2014. White helps the student incorporate his treatments, eating, hygiene, and different forms of therapy while at school.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A life skills student at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion lies on his classroom floor as his private nurse, LPN Lillian White (top), 29, of Smithfield, physical therapist Regina Jones (left), and fellow life skills student (right) help him with a physical therapy session on Thursday, April 3, 2014. White helps the student incorporate his treatments, eating, hygiene, and different forms of therapy while at school.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Learning support teacher Nicole Williams helps a student with her schoolwork in her first grade classroom at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The classroom is broken into several pods so students can go at different paces and receive the one-on-one help of learning support teachers if they need it. Williams' job includes reteaching lessons to students who need extra help or have learning disabilities, as well as keeping students on task and relaying back to the teacher where different students are struggling.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Learning support teacher Nicole Williams helps a student with her schoolwork in her first grade classroom at Friendship Hill Elementary School in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The classroom is broken into several pods so students can go at different paces and receive the one-on-one help of learning support teachers if they need it. Williams' job includes reteaching lessons to students who need extra help or have learning disabilities, as well as keeping students on task and relaying back to the teacher where different students are struggling.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits in time-out at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. More than one-fifth of Albert Gallatin School District's students are identified as special education. There are many things – like iPads and smartboards or additional teachers and tutors – that could help students improve or help with early identification, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits in time-out at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. More than one-fifth of Albert Gallatin School District's students are identified as special education. There are many things – like iPads and smartboards or additional teachers and tutors – that could help students improve or help with early identification, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham said.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits in time-out at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. 'We have so many special needs children… We have to take these kids out in the community, it's the only way they learn,' says Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont, 23, of McClellandtown. Dupont says she finds herself pulling from her own pocket to afford class trips out into the community to give students experience with ordering food, grocery shopping, and other day-to-day life skills.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>A student in the Life Skills class at Friendship Hill Elementary School sits in time-out at recess in Point Marion on Thursday, April 3, 2014. 'We have so many special needs children… We have to take these kids out in the community, it's the only way they learn,' says Life Skills teacher Ashley Dupont, 23, of McClellandtown. Dupont says she finds herself pulling from her own pocket to afford class trips out into the community to give students experience with ordering food, grocery shopping, and other day-to-day life skills.

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Disadvantaged students

In Allegheny County, Quaker Valley, Pine-Richland, Duquesne, Gateway and Wilkinsburg school districts pay a combined $24 million — five times their state allotments — to fully fund special ed budgets. Wilkinsburg and Duquesne report the highest special ed populations, at 28 percent and 30 percent, respectively.

A review of 2012-13 state data shows 52 districts report a higher-than-average number of students from low-income homes, including 40 with a comparably high volume of special-education students.

Poverty and disability are “intimately connected,” said Mary Wagner, principal scientist in the Center of Education and Research Services at SRI International, an independent, nonprofit national research institute. But one doesn't cause the other, Wagner said.

“The mother who can't afford prenatal care and can't afford to feed her child well — that child doesn't grow up healthy, gets to school and sometimes has multiple behavioral and intellectual disabilities,” she said.

At Albert Gallatin in Fayette County, Special Education Director Sheri Dunham has a wish list as long as her students' Christmas lists. Smartboards and iPads that could help students improve or help with early identification aren't a fiscal reality, she said.

“It's what I call a bare-bones operation,” Dunham said. “Funding definitely limits us from going above and beyond what the basic requirements of the law are.”

— Daveen Rae Kurutz and Megan Harris

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By Daveen Rae Kurutz and Megan Harris
Sunday, May 4, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
 

More than 46,000 Western Pennsylvania special education students are on the losing end of a state funding formula that dumps their education costs onto school districts inequitably, educators and some lawmakers say.

The state formula distributes aid on the assumption that 16 percent of students — the state average — will need services such as speech therapy, tutoring and devices to accommodate physical and intellectual disabilities. But the formula shortchanges districts with higher-than-average percentages of special education students, experts say.

Even districts with fewer special education students than the state average lack state resources to meet needs, school officials say.

“What we have now makes no sense,” Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said. “Students with multiple physical handicaps don't require the same amount of funding as kids who need speech language therapy, and everyone is paying more than they should.”

Of 117 school districts the Tribune-Review evaluated in nine Western Pennsylvania counties, 80 percent support student populations well above or below the average. Expensive equipment, facilities and tutors drive costs thousands of dollars above the typical cost per student. Costs to districts above what the state provides range from $2,378 in Jefferson-Morgan in Greene County to $21,038 at Duquesne in Allegheny County.

Taxpayers in Washington County's Avella School District spend the least to cover special education costs regionally: $450,000 annually. Pittsburgh Public School residents pay $54 million — more than twice what the state contributes — for the district's 4,482 special education students.

Districts have to reallocate local taxpayer money, Burgettstown School District Superintendent David Palmer said. Administrators at the Washington County district pulled $2 million earmarked for technology upgrades to provide services for the district's special education students, who account for 20 percent of the enrollment, Palmer said.

That's why a district's socio­economic status should be a factor in determining special education funding, said Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Educational Policy and Leadership Center. A former state representative and chair of House education committees, Cowell said the formula shifts most special-education costs onto local taxpayers — more than $1.5 billion statewide.

“That gap, if you will, is aggravated further in many instances by a school district that doesn't have any resources to begin with,” Cowell said. “We're furthering the trend of shifting more and more of the financial obligation from the state to school districts.”

Cowell represented Braddock, Swissvale and Forest Hills when the funding formula changed from 100 percent reimbursement to the current formula in 1991. Cowell doesn't suggest going back to the old formula, but he wants the state to take on more financial responsibility for special education costs.

The state pays about 38 percent of districts' actual costs, budget figures show.

Last week, the state Senate Appropriations Committee moved legislation that would establish a three-tier funding system that considers the severity of student disabilities and districts' actual costs. The bill could come to a floor vote soon.

Dumaresq called the proposal a “long-awaited answer” to an “obvious problem.”

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennCAN, an education advocacy group, said it's clear some districts are overpaid.

He estimated more than half the state's 500 school districts have a special education population less than the Department of Education's assumed 16 percent average. Though PennCAN “strongly supports the concept of a tiered, weighted funding formula,” the organization has serious concerns about how legislation would divvy up tax dollars, particularly to charter schools.

Similar to its Senate counterpart, House Bill 2183 includes a “hold harmless” provision for traditional public schools but would implement cuts immediately for charter schools.

In his February budget address, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett proposed the state's first increase in special education money in six years. Lawmakers have until the end of June to approve the $20 million line item.

Richard Regelski, director of special-education services at Franklin Regional School District, said it's difficult to put a price on educating a percentage of the population. His students are more than just a number.

“It's not about the money — it's about making sure that student needs are met,” he said.

Megan Harris and Daveen Rae Kurutz are Trib Total Media staff writers. Staff writer Patrick Varine contributed to this report.

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