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Charter school advocates criticize funding proposal for special education in Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

Two companion bills aiming to reallocate special education funding in Pennsylvania are under fire because of how they would distribute those funds to charter schools.

Charter school advocates argue that the bills would decrease funding for their special education students and hinder their ability to provide adequate student care. But supporters of the legislation maintain that charters are dramatically overfunded now compared to traditional public schools.

About 2,930 students receive special education services in Western Pennsylvania's 25 charter schools. Statewide, charters enroll 15,312 special students.

State education association leaders argued on Tuesday that charter school advocates are disseminating “false and misleading information” about House Bill 2138 and Senate Bill 1316.

“The sky is not falling as the comments from charter schools suggest,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Himes and leaders with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the Pennsylvania Association of School Boards pointed to 2012-13 data from the state Department of Education that show charter schools received $350 million in special education reimbursements from traditional public schools. Charter expenditures for special students leveled at about $156 million.

Unlike traditional public schools bound by strict budgets, charter schools are not required to spend money collected for special education on special education costs.

The proposed companion bills would divvy cash on a three-tiered system based on students' disabilities. They would reduce funding for students in the least severe category — where most special education students will fall — and slightly increase payments for those in the more severe second and third tiers.

Parents' groups such as the Pennsylvania Bricks and Mortar Charter Schools frequently tell their members online that the companion bills would “effectively de-fund special-needs students who happen to attend Pennsylvania's charter schools.”

“The complication is in determining how to count the cost of special education,” said Jon Cetel, executive director of K-12 advocacy group PennCAN. “You can start with the incremental cost of salaries and services, but most students attend regular classes with an extra speech class or therapy session once or twice a week. So how do you count that? It's up in the air.”

Treating charters and traditional public schools differently is a fundamental flaw, Cetel said.

In a letter sent on Monday, Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, cautiously applauded work by the Special Education Commission — which designed the bills — including the letter's recipient and S.B. 1316 sponsor Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh Valley. Williams warned the bills' problems are three-fold.

“Traditional public schools are able to indicate the actual number of special education students in order to place the students into these (three-tiered) categories,” he wrote. “Charters (cannot).”

For traditional public schools, adjustments in funding would be made for community wealth, property taxes, school district size and population density, but not for charter schools.

Charters would not be protected under hold-harmless provisions that prohibit funding to drop below 2010-11 levels.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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