A report released in May of this year by the Education Law Center and the advocacy coalition PA Schools Work found the state of Pennsylvania paying less towards special education despite an increase in the number of students needing special education services. Local districts now have to make up the budgetary difference, creating financial hardships for underfunded districts.
Special education funding covers any instruction or service for children who are eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The most common disabilities covered under the act are specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, and autism. The report found that in Pennsylvania during 2019-2020, the number of students who have identified as needing special education grew by 14% since 2008-2009. The increase was caused by “increases in identification of autism eligibility and other specific developmental disabilities.”
In that same time period, Pennsylvania paid only 22% of its school districts’ special education costs, a significant decrease from the 32% paid in 2008-2009. Even as special education costs rose from $3 billion to $5.2 billion, funding given by the state only increased by $156 million, to a total of $1.1 billion. This forced local districts to double their contributions from $1.8 billion to $3.7 billion to cover the gap.
Sharon Ward, a senior policy adviser at the Education Law Center said, “The story of state special education funding is one of indifference.” In particular, low-income communities are most impacted by low funding because school districts have had to redirect much-needed funding originally intended for teachers, programs, and facilities in order to pay for special education services.
“The lens through which we looked at this, is what happens if a district is already underfunded and can’t raise enough money to pay for classroom costs. That is compounded in low-wealth districts that also have to pay for special education costs and are unable to adequately do both," Ward said.
The Philadelphia School District, the state’s largest district, saw its special education costs increased by $347 million while state aid rose a mere $27 million over a 10-year period from 2008-2009 to 2019-2020".
According to the report, despite school districts diverting existing funds to cover special education services, children enrolled in the special education programs aren’t necessarily receiving the funds either. It states that, “parents report a lack of resources to provide appropriate and timely services to students and delays in identifying students and completing or updating IEPs (Individualized Education Plan).”
While parents are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of support from the state, the report also highlighted the disturbing discrepancy between funding provided to district schools in comparison to funding given to charter schools.
In 2014, the General Assembly amended how they would distribute special education money to districts by dividing the aid into three tiers, which ranged from $10,000 to $50,000, depending on the extent of the student’s disability. However, it did not apply these changes to charter schools. Therefore, charter schools continued to receive the same amount for every special education student regardless of the student’s disability or the costs of their individual educational services. The report showed a trend in most charter schools to accept children with less severe disabilities who require lower-cost services like speech therapy. Then, the school uses the leftover state funds to redistribute them towards other programs and needs. In some districts, “the charter school loophole” gave charter schools upwards of three times as much for each special education student as for regular education students.
Gov. Tom Wolf took steps in his 2023 fiscal budget proposal to address this growing issue. He asked the General Assembly to approve a $200 million increase in special education funding, reflecting the yearly average rise in special education costs found by the report.