Pennsylvania for too long has stacked the deck against taxpayers in Columbia, Lancaster and other high-poverty communities where schools are burdened by greater than average numbers of students who require special education.
Every year since 1991, the Pennsylvania Legislature has treated all of the state's school districts the same, funding each as if 16 percent of its students qualify for special education.
The result is a windfall for some districts. Manheim Township, for example, provides special education for 11 percent of its students. Conestoga Valley offers special education to 12 percent. But both receive state funds based on the 16 percent standard.
Meanwhile, financially stressed School District of Lancaster must provide special education to 19 percent of its students. The challenge for Columbia is even greater. More than 21 percent qualify for more intensive services. Yet the state treats both districts as if their special needs population was only 16 percent.
Pennsylvania's unfair distribution of special ed dollars places an extra burden on schools already struggling to meet the needs of students handicapped by poverty.
And that means it places a monetary burden on those districts' taxpayers who get pinched to fill the funding gap. Still, there's not enough to go around.
Funding "is extremely tight," said Jennifer Zolenas, Columbia's special education coordinator. "We're always having to figure out other ways to support our students because we must serve them in any way they need."
Carole Clancy, supervising coordinator of special education for Lancaster's schools, said, "We have students with significant challenges that need services, and we're required to do more with less."
One result, Clancy said, is high turnover among her special education teachers because "the work expectations are very challenging" compared to other districts.
It's the law that children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate education … designed to meet their unique needs." To which the state Legislature year after year says, "Whatever."
"The problem with the state's system for funding special education is that the state has no system for funding special education," observes Baruch Kintisch of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center. "There are many districts that … are robbing Peter to pay Paul to provide some semblance of special education programming."
State Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster has for years decried the unfairness, and he now is sponsoring a bill that disability advocates say would move Pennsylvania from worst in the country in special education funding to first.
H.B. 704 proposes two major reforms: (1) a formula to match funding with need and (2) accountability measures to assure funds go only to students who truly need services.
The bill also seeks to reduce the number of students who are made eligible for special education as a result of poor academic performance rather than true learning disabilities.
Fairness. Accountability. A needs-based focus.
That's what Sturla's bill offers and why it has 65 co-sponsors (none, alas, from the county's GOP ranks).
In funding special education appropriately, Kintisch said, children have a chance to reach their full potential and become adults able to support themselves and contribute to society.
The alternative is the status quo which dooms seven out of 10 adults with disabilities to unemployment and dependency.