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Pennsylvania Ponders Changes to Special Education Funding Formula

After trying more than once to do so, Pennsylvania is poised to make a change in its 22-year-old funding formula for special education.

Last week the state House passed, on a 193-0 vote, a bill that would create a 15-member commission to study the issue and develop a recommendation that would take into account the severity of a student's disability when it comes to funding districts. Enrollment and district wealth would also play a factor in determining how much special education money a district would get. The Patriot-News in central Pennsylvania described the current funding landscape and recent political moves in an editorial that spoke in favor of the changes.

Currently, Pennsylvania distributes state special education dollars to its 501 districts using a simple formula known as "census-based" funding: The state assumes that 16 percent of a district's student population requires special services, and distributes a share of money based solely on that percentage.

The benefit of such a formula, some say, is that districts have no incentive to inflate their special education population in order to get more money. But one downside comes from the fact that special education students are not evenly distributed across a state—some districts with high numbers of students in special education could end up without enough money, while districts with low numbers could be overfunded.

Also, different disabilities require different resources from a district. For example, a student with a speech impairment does not cost a district the same amount as a student with severe autism.

(I explored some of the different state special education funding issues in this 2011 article.)

During the 2012 legislative session, a similar bill passed but ended up being amended with some charter school legislation. Republican Rep. Bernie O'Neill, a former special education teacher who sponsored both last year's and this year's bills, ended up voting against his own legislation.

The bill continues to be popular, however, and stands a good chance of passing. But even if it is signed into law, districts won't see any immediate change in their special education dollars. That's because the bill will only apply to new special education money allocated by the state, and the state has held the state subsidy flat at about $1 billion for the past five years.

"There needs to be new money put in. Just inflation costs would call for a 10 to 15 percent increase" over current levels, said Brett Schaeffer, the communications director for the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy organization with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that has long supported a change in the state's special education funding formula.

And districts could end up seeing a cut in funding this year if some changes proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett are passed by the legislature. Corbett, a Republican, has proposed shifting about $4.7 million from the basic special education subsidy to bolster the state's special education contingency fund. Districts access money from the contingency fund to educate students in special education who have high-cost needs, but are capped at how much money they can draw out.

So even though there's a potential for the state to move to a funding formula that many see as more equitable, districts would still see a potential money loss, and that's before any cuts that may come from the sequester.

From the perspective of the Education Law Center, "there's a little bit of a bittersweet feeling here," said Schaeffer, whose organization believes that the governor is exploiting the Pennsylvania funding system.

On Special Education is on Twitter! Follow @OnSpecEd.

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