Special education funding commission

Pennsylvania's Special Education Funding Commission meets in Manheim Township on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, for its third public hearing. 

THE ISSUE

Lancaster County school and health officials expressed concerns Monday over the increasingly unsustainable costs of special education. They aired those concerns at the third public hearing of Pennsylvania’s recently reconstituted Special Education Funding Commission; the hearing was held at the Manheim Township School District office. As LNP’s Alex Geli reported Tuesday, “The commission, originally formed in 2012 and called upon again this year to study the special education (funding) formula it recommended in 2013” has among its co-chairs state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera. Also on the commission are Republican state Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, and Democratic Rep. Michael Sturla, of Lancaster.

Special education has a branding problem. What it really should be called is education. Just education.

Perhaps then it might not be viewed as some kind of optional extra. Because it’s not.

Under federal law, Pennsylvania children with disabilities are guaranteed a “free appropriate public education.”

Unfortunately, they — and their parents — sometimes are made to feel as if they’re imposing on school districts by asking simply for what the law guarantees them.

No child asks to have a disability. And no parent wants his or her child to need extra help and accommodations. We’d all like our children to sail through school without obstacles, external or internal.

Few parents do as those in the college admissions scandal did and game the system to win their children accommodations such as extended testing time. (Actress Felicity Huffman and her entitled ilk selfishly hurt the cause of students with legitimate learning challenges.)

Ensuring that a child’s special needs are met at school is not an easy process. It involves reams of paperwork and rigorous testing for the child. And, often, vigilance on the part of parents to ensure that the school is meeting the child’s needs. (Such vigilance can be hard enough for parents of means to sustain — consider how difficult it is for those who can’t attend school meetings because of inflexible work schedules.)

Administrators sometimes are wary of green-lighting costly services and programs. And who can blame them, really? Despite the special education funding formula implemented several years ago, school districts continue to face painfully tight budgets because the money they get from the state is simply inadequate.

Some examples from Monday’s meeting:

— Three Penn Manor students, who receive various supports for autism and other special needs, alone cost the district $217,000. In the 2008-09 school year, Theresa Kreider, Penn Manor’s director of student support services, said her district had only one student whose costs exceeded $75,000. Now, it has 12.

— Matt Przywara, School District of Lancaster’s chief finance and operations officer, said his district allotted about $600,000 this year for two additional autistic support classes. The district’s special education subsidy from the state was only $425,000. Including additional support, the shortfall comes close to $750,000.

— Manheim Township School District chief operating officer Donna Robbins said her district’s special education expenditures have increased by $3.1 million, or 37%, since 2014-15. The state has only contributed an additional $137,000, or 6%, she said.

“It is evident that the state funding formula is not keeping pace with the needs of our students,” Przywara said.

He was talking about his own district. But he could have been talking about districts all over the state.

Plea for funding

In a Sept. 25 letter to the Special Education Funding Commission, a coalition called PA Schools Work implored the commission to change this reality.

The coalition’s partners include the Education Law Center, the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The letter noted that this year’s “$50 million increase in state special education funding has inspired hope among parents, administrators, and others that their schools will be better able to provide needed services.”

But “over the past decade, the state’s contribution to special education costs has dropped from a one-third share to just 22%. Restoring the state share of special education funding to its 2008 level would require an additional $465 million in state aid on a recurring basis.

“And it would take significantly more state special education funding to cover the hundreds of millions of annual state underinvestment that has hollowed out district budgets and led to cuts in educational services.”

This underinvestment by the state has led school districts to repeatedly increase property taxes, which have proven to be particularly burdensome to senior citizens.

The state must remedy this.

And, as the coalition stated, “Increased investment in special education cannot be seen as an alternative to increased funding for basic education.”

When funding is a zero-sum game, special education is pitted against basic education.

And the kids lose.

The realities

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 1 in 5 children have learning and attention issues such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder — a dramatic increase from approximately 1 in 150 children in 2000-02.

In the not-so-good old days, children struggled in school with undiagnosed learning and developmental disabilities. Now, such disabilities are diagnosed earlier, more often and more precisely. Which means children identified with disabilities have a greater chance of succeeding in school, whatever the measure of success (for children with severe disabilities, success might be learning to better communicate — which is no small thing).

According to the National Council on Disability, studies “show that up to 85 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent receive these services while in school.”

Education is far less expensive than incarceration.

So it is in the interest of the state — and the state’s taxpayers — that disabilities in students are identified, and that those students get the individualized education they need and to which they are legally entitled.

But until the commonwealth increases funding, property taxpayers and school districts will continue to shoulder the ever-rising costs. And special education will continue to be viewed unfairly as a burden, rather than the essential it is.