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Special-education charter funding skews the numbers in Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Frazier School District business manager Kevin Mildren compared the state's formula for special-education funding to taking a size 10 shoe and trying to force it on every foot in Pennsylvania.

Charter schools, privately operated but publicly funded, were set up to provide alternatives for parents who sought a different approach to their children's education. When parents choose a charter school, districts must redirect taxpayer money — known as tuition — for those children's education to the new school.

For special-education students, often the sum is greater than the cost in the student's home district because of a flawed funding approach that does not reflect the services a student needs, critics say.

“The calculation for outside tuition, it causes me a lot of difficulty, because it's more than what it would cost internally,” Mildren said.

Charter schools are required to provide the same type of education to students as a public school and yet receive more money to do so in many cases.

State budget officials fund special education based on the assumption that districts have a population on par with the state average, 16 percent. Of the 117 school districts Trib Total Media examined in Southwestern Pennsylvania's nine counties, only 24 were within 1 percentage point of that average. Click here for a detailed map of those districts.

If a special-education student leaves for a charter school, the formula governing how much funding accompanies the student is calculated by dividing a district's total special-education costs by the “state average.”

In a district such as Penn Hills, where 19 percent of students are identified as needing special education, that means dividing total spending, $11.2 million, not by the actual special-education population — 762 — but rather by the number the state assumes — 631.

Penn Hills spends an average of $14,750 to educate a special education student. If that student leaves, its payments to charters are about $24,000, including a basic per-pupil subsidy.

“It's a complete nightmare,” district business director Richard Liberto said. “It's huge, and it's a moving target.”

The funding formulas are particularly troublesome for a district such as Penn Hills, which has lost a large number of students to charter schools. Since the beginning of the school year, at least 117 students have left for charter schools, Liberto said.

“The district is on pace to foot a 2014-15 charter/cyber bill of more than $12 million,” he said.

No matter what services a student needs, when the student leaves for a charter school, there is a predetermined tuition payment that the district must pay, said Allegheny Intermediate Unit executive director Linda Hippert.

“That student may only have a disability of speech,” Hippert said. “We know, in traditional districts, to provide speech services, it's much different than if the student is multihandicapped.”

That's a problem, she said, because the payment doesn't accurately reflect the needs of that individual student.

Superintendents across the region want to see that funding reflects the services the child is receiving, she said.

“I think part of this is the whole charter system has become much more complex than anyone imagined. We really have to dig deep and do what is right for all children.” Hippert said. “It's not one size fits all.”

Nicole Snyder, counsel for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, said the group is “absolutely in agreement with equitable and fair funding for all special-education students, but that means equitable, and that means enough to provide a free, appropriate public education,” she said.

Snyder said school-district officials' arguments do not take into account the basic-education funding formula, which allows districts to deduct things such as business-office expenses and transportation costs when calculating their charter payments.

Officials from charter company Imagine Schools referred calls for comment to Snyder, and officials of the The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School was unable to be reached for comment.

In the New Kensington-Arnold School District, business manager Jeff McVey said charter-school payments are artificially inflated because they are locked into the state formula.

“If we could actually use our true (special-education percentage), 23.94 percent, it would be a lower (per-pupil) number than what we report to the state, simply because the state uses an old formula that's been around for quite some time,” McVey said.

Mildren agreed.

“I have no recourse,” he said. “Once I submit our info to the state, we have to abide by the state formulas … But it doesn't match up with what we pay internally.”

Mars Area School District business manager Jill Swaney said officials in her district are not against charter education but rather oppose the way it's funded.

“Just because the children go to a cyber school, that doesn't reduce our costs,” Swaney said.

“It actually becomes a cost for us.”

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or pvarine@tribweb.com. Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627 or dmclaughlin@tribweb.com.

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