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Pennsylvania formula for special education funding unworkable, experts say

| Sunday, May 4, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
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.

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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