Report offers ‘simple’ fix to special education funding in Pennsylvania

    Pennsylvania's Special Education Funding Commission meets at the Southern Lehigh School District High School on Oct. 8. Photo Source: Office of Sen. Pat Browne.

    A state panel has less than a month to tell lawmakers if the Pennsylvania lawmakers whether they need to tweak the formula that distributes more than $1 billion in funding for special education each year.

    Pennsylvania’s Special Education Funding Commission, a 15-member panel of lawmakers and state agency officials, has traveled across the state this fall to hear educators and school administrators sound off on special education funding in Pennsylvania’s public schools.

    The panel is set to return  a report to the General Assembly by Nov. 30 with its  recommendations on how to distribute special education funding to the state’s 500 school districts. 

    One month ahead of that deadline, a team of researchers and education reform advocates have some ideas of what those recommendations should look like. 

    A report published Thursday by the Education Law Center, a statewide legal aid service, and Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, suggests that state lawmakers scrap the  existing special education funding formula, arguing it contains flaws that “give an artificial boost” to wealthy districts at the expense of poorer ones.

    In its place, they said, the Legislature should adopt a new one that’s modeled off another education formula that’s already on the books — Pennsylvania’s basic education funding formula, which was adopted in 2016 in an effort to achieve more equity in school funding. 

    The basic education formula, which distributes K-12 education dollars statewide, was the result of more than a year of work by a commission convened by former Gov. Tom Corbett.

    The equation takes into account a number of factors about a district — including the wealth of its taxpayers, and the number of children living in poverty and learning English as a second language — to determine how much each district gets from the state’s annual basic education appropriation. 

    That budget was set at $6.6 billion this year for the current fiscal year. 

    It’s a complicated formula. But the report’s authors  say it does a pretty good job of distributing money equitably. 

    That’s why they’re encouraging lawmakers to apply it to special education funding, too. 

    The researchers say the “simple change” could save the Commission some work and help them achieve greater equity in special education funding across the state. 

    They also want the General Assembly to pump more money into special education. 

    Earlier reports from the Education Law Center and another group, PA Schools Work, found that the state share of special education funding has dropped, putting a greater burden on school district taxpayers to fund services for students with disabilities. 

    The proposal to boost funding may fall on deaf ears in the funding commission, which can’t tell the state how much to budget for special education — only how it should distribute it.