Special education funding revisited

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HARRISBURG -- A state commission is crafting a revised special education funding formula to account for school districts' individual needs, an overhaul touted by lawmakers and education advocates.

Though the commission was created with unanimous support from both the House and Senate, lawmakers are not obligated to move forward on any of its recommendations, which will be released by Nov. 30.

The current distribution system for the state's special education subsidies assumes that each school district educates the same percentage of students requiring special education services. Because the number of students using special education services varies, the commission is crafting a formula to drive the most money to districts serving students with the most cost-intensive needs.

"Special education students are not equally distributed throughout the school districts and charter schools across the state," said Laura Cowburn of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials at Wednesday's commission hearing. "Those with higher incident rates have to pass those costs along to local taxpayers."

In 2011-12, the Pittsburgh school district spent $81.8 million in special education instructional expenses and the state funded $27.5 million; Fox Chapel Area School District had $10.4 million in expenses and received $2.3 million from the state; and North Allegheny School District had $13.8 million in expenses and received $3.7 million from the state.

School districts must provide special education services, including assistive technology, extended school year services, adaptive physical education programs, school-to-work transition services and specialized transportation.

A 2009 study by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania found that the majority of school districts in Pennsylvania do not spend enough money to meet the basic needs of special education students. School districts spend about $12,500 more to educate a student in special education than a student in a mainstream classroom, said Lee Ann Wentzel, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. State and federal funding provides about $4,600 per special education student, she said.

Some students' special education requirements are just for speech and language services, which cost only a few thousand dollars, Ms. Wentzel said. Other students may have more cost-intensive needs. Providing services for a student with severe autism or a student needing placement in specialized residential facilities can range from $60,000 to upwards of $100,000, she said.

The commission will hold five more hearings through September. The next hearing is scheduled for July 25 in Bucks County.

education - state

Megan Rogers is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association.


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