Commission creates funding formula for special education

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HARRISBURG -- For years, Pennsylvania has distributed state funding for special education without regard to the number or needs of students receiving services in particular districts.

But the portion of students receiving special education services varies widely from the statewide rate of 15.2 percent. In some districts, less than 10 percent of students receive special education services. In others, more than 25 percent do.

Now, a commission made up of legislators and Corbett administration officials is recommending the state distribute any increase in special education funding through a formula that considers the number of special education students and the intensity of their needs, along with poverty levels, property taxes and whether the district is small and rural.

If the General Assembly passes those recommendations into law, the immediate effect would likely be limited. State funding for special education has not risen since the 2008-09 school year -- but the commission was charged with considering only what to do with an increase beyond current funding, not the total pot of special education funding.

Still, Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who co-chaired the commission, said the adoption of a formula based upon the recommendations would be "extremely meaningful."

"The current formula that has distributed dollars for the last 25 years is broken," he said. "It does not provide for a fair and equitable distribution of special education dollars."

All 15 members of the commission, Democrat and Republican, voted last week to support the recommendations, which were made after receiving testimony at seven public hearings throughout the state.

The disconnect between state funding and the number of students enrolled in special education has been a real problem for school districts, said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

"It's definitely a move in the right direction, getting it back to basing the allocation of funds on the actual student and the particular needs of the school districts," he said.

Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the teacher's union is glad the commission has made its recommendations but feels its mission was too limited.

"I think they were constrained from making overly broad recommendations," he said. "At the same time, this is the start of a conversation which is really important and needs to continue."

That conversation, he said, needs to examine the whole of funding for K-12 education.

Nancy Hubley, director of the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center, a statewide legal advocacy organization, said constituent groups agree the recommendations would improve the distribution of funding.

"If they put those into law, I would say that's a huge step, a giant step for children with disabilities and special education funding, and one of many steps that need to be taken to fix the overall funding in Pennsylvania for public education," she said.

The center supports an increase in overall funding for K-12 education, including special education.

Changes to state funding could in turn affect local taxes, which pay the majority of special education expenses. In the 2011-12 school year, local education agencies spent $3.3 billion on special education instruction, with the state providing $960 million and the federal government $340 million, according to testimony cited in the commission's report.

The law creating the commission stated that it could include in its recommendations three cost categories, the number of students in each and the poverty levels and property taxes of districts. The group chose to also include a factor for small and rural schools, as transportation costs can be burdensome in expansive districts, Mr. Browne said.

Mr. Browne said he expects legislation to enact a formula to be made public in January.

Karen Langley:, 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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