Legislative panel will travel the state this fall to hear concerns on the way Pa. pays for special education

    Sen. Pat Browne will chair the Special Education Funding Commission with Rep. Curtis Sonney and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

    A special commission reestablished on Tuesday will examine Pennsylvania’s education funding for children with disabilities — albeit with a slightly narrower scope than in the past. 

    Pennsylvania’s 15-member Special Education Funding Commission, which has been dormant since 2013, will travel across the state this fall to hear parents, educators, and school administrators sound off on special education funding. 

    They’ll compile their findings in a report due by Nov. 30, which may include recommendations to the General Assembly to change the formula that distributes special education dollars to Pennsylvania’s public school districts.

    It’s the same charge the commission had in 2013, when it recommended Pennsylvania adopt a new funding formula based on the severity of a student’s special education needs. 

    But as commission member Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, pointed out at a meeting on Tuesday, the panel faces one significant limitation this time around. 

    Thanks to a change in state law that took effect in June, the commission can’t review special education funding payments to charter schools or cyber charter schools, which enroll more than 140,000 students across the Commonwealth. 

    “I know that is a factor driving costs in special education,” Sturla said, referring to tuition payments to charter schools. “How we can dance around that?”

    The new rule doesn’t faze Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who was elected commission co-chair on Tuesday, along with Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, who also chairs the House Education Committee. 

    Browne said that special education payments to charter schools need to be part of a larger discussion about charter school funding in Pennsylvania. 

    “The issues regarding charter school funding… need to be done in a holistic fashion,” said Browne, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

    Reviewing basic education payments and special education payments to charter schools, Browne argued, “can’t be done separately.”

    Browne’s bill to create a Charter School Funding Commission is one of the few pieces of legislation that enjoys support from both the charter school industry and its critics. 

    The Senate passed the bill in June and sent it to the House, where it now awaits a vote by the Education Committee. It was also one of the legislative proposals Gov. Tom Wolf endorsed this month when he made sweeping regulatory changes to the state’s charter sector. 

    The Pennsylvania School Business Administrators Association (PASBO), which represents school administrators, believes that the issue of charter school funding is “extremely important.”

    Nonetheless, its members understand why charter school payments are now outside the purview of the Special Education Funding Commission, PASBO communications director Hannah Barrick told the Capital-Star in an email Tuesday.

    “We recognize the tight timeline the Commission is under to assess the school district formula, and we want to ensure the Commission is able to conduct and complete that important review,” Barrick said. “With so much momentum in the legislature and in the governor’s office on the issue of charter school funding, we are hopeful that there are other opportunities to address charter school funding—particularly the special education charter school tuition calculation—this fall.”

    Created by an act of the Legislature in 2013, Pennsylvania’s Special Education Funding Commission is required by law to reconvene every five years to study special education funding in Pennsylvania.

    It was reestablished for the first time this year, technically one year later than its statutory requirement. 

    The  General Assembly determines a budget for state-level special education funding for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts each June. Lawmakers set the appropriation at $1.1 billion this year, a 4 percent increase from 2018. 

    Schools receive the bulk of their state assistance in the annual basic education allocation, which was set at $6.7 billion this year.

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