The cost of providing special education is rising in school districts across Pennsylvania — but the state isn’t picking up the tab, according to a new report.
From 2008-09 to 2019-20, public school spending on special education grew by $2.2 billion, reaching $5.2 billion, according to the report released Thursday by the Education Law Center and PA Schools Work, a coalition of advocacy groups. But state funding for special education increased by only $156 million during that period.
As with the broader education funding picture in Pennsylvania, that’s left local school districts — and taxpayers — shouldering the vast majority of the costs, which have increased in part due to more Pennsylvania children being identified as needing special education services, the report said. Of Pennsylvania’s public school population, about 300,000 students, or 18%, are identified as requiring special education, considered any specially designed instruction to meet the needs of children with disabilities.
In communities with limited wealth to draw on, “children ... are losing out — as well as the homeowners and renters who bear the brunt of these taxes,” the report said. It said school districts have diverted funding from areas like teachers, programs, and facilities to pay for special education services, which students are entitled to under federal and state law.
But children in need of special education aren’t necessarily receiving it, either, according to the report, which said that “parents report a lack of resources to provide appropriate and timely services to students and delays in identifying students and completing or updating IEPs.”
That problem is “particularly acute” for students living in poverty, who are more likely to be identified as requiring special education services, said the report — which noted special education as one piece of a wider deficiency in education funding in Pennsylvania. A group of six school districts and other plaintiffs — represented in part by the Education Law Center — are currently suing the state, alleging its method of funding public education is so inadequate and inequitable as to violate its constitution.
While plaintiffs are seeking a court order, in the meantime advocates want lawmakers to pass a $1.55 billion increase in the state’s main subsidy for public schools for the coming year, along with a $200 million increase in special education funding, as provided for in Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal.
That special education increase would “cover expected cost increases and begin to reverse the decline in state share,” the report released Thursday said. It also pressed lawmakers to restore the state’s share to at least one-third of special education costs within five years. (A decade earlier, the state was paying for 32% of special education costs; by 2019-20, that share had dropped to 22%.)
The report also faulted the state’s approach to compensating charter schools — which are publicly funded but independently run — for special education services. Currently, school districts fund charters based on student enrollment. Districts pay charter schools a rate per special education student enrolled in the charter, based on the average of what the district spends on its special education students.
That calculation, however, doesn’t take into account the needs of the special education students enrolled in charters. The Education Law Center and the School District of Philadelphia have found that the city’s charter schools enroll students with less severe disabilities than the district.
Philadelphia’s special education spending has more than doubled since 2008, growing by $348 million, according to state data compiled by the Education Law Center. Meanwhile, the state has sent the district only $27 million more for special education.
As those district costs increase, so too do its payments to charters; the district has attributed growth in special education costs as driving its increased charter payments.