As Delaware County's financially troubled Chester Upland School District struggles to stay afloat, officials there say they are paying millions more than they should on special-education students who attend charter schools.

School districts pay charters to teach their children, using a complicated formula set by state law. About 45 percent of Chester Upland's students attend charters.

Chester Upland's payments are based on the previous year's expense of educating students in its own schools, minus some costs charters do not incur.

For regular-education Chester Upland students this year, that figure is \$9,858 per child.

But flaws in the state charter-school law, district officials say, make payments to charter schools for special-education students much higher, costing Chester Upland about \$8 million more than is reasonable.

Chester Upland's per-student special-education charter-school payment this year is \$24,528, more than twice as much as for regular students and thousands per student more than the state average.

For the 657 Chester Upland special-education students at Chester Community Charter, which has by far the most district students, the district owes about \$16.1 million this school year.

One big problem with the charter-funding formula, district officials say, is that it does not allow districts to use the actual number of their special-education students when calculating per-student special-education costs. Instead, the formula starts with the assumption that 16 percent of a district's students have special needs.

That figure - 16 percent of district enrollment - is then divided into the district's special-needs expenses to establish a per-student cost. That amount is paid to the charter for special-needs students.

In Chester Upland, more than 20 percent of the district's students have special needs, driving up the cost.

The special-education cost used to calculate Chester Upland's payments to charters this year was \$17.3 million. The district could only count 16 percent of its students - 1,182 - in figuring its per-student special-education payments. That came out to \$14,670 per student, added to the regular education per student cost of \$9,858.

If the actual number of Chester Upland's special-education students - more than 1,650 - were used to figure the per-student cost, that figure would have been cut by more than \$4,000 per student, and the district's payments to charters would be millions less.

District officials also contend they would save millions more if special-education payments to charters were based on the actual costs the charters incur, not those of providing special education in Chester Upland.

Chester Upland has a higher percentage of severely disabled students than the charters do. Many are accompanied by aides; some are deaf, blind, or severely autistic. Costs averaged more than \$24,000 per student for the most severely disabled cohort.

At Chester Community, about 40 percent of special-needs children last year were classified as speech- or language-impaired, generally a relatively mild disability that usually costs less to remediate.

Chester Upland, by contrast, had 6.3 percent speech- or language-impaired students. So it has been left with a larger number of students with difficult - and expensive - impairments.

District officials argue it would be more fair if charters were reimbursed only for their actual expenses.

The Corbett administration, while not going that far, has suggested creating three payment levels for charter special-education students in distressed districts. More would be paid for the most severely disabled students and the least for speech- or language-impaired children.

Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, said that could create "a second class of students" getting lower payments and lead to "potentially substandard treatment for some."

Chester Community Charter School chief executive officer David Clark, asked for comment, wrote that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate separate special-education costs, because much of the special-needs instruction goes on alongside regular-education students in the regular classrooms.

Asked about the high percentage of speech- or language-impaired students, Clark said the school's special-education program has been audited numerous times by the state Education Department and received commendations for its efforts.

The school, he said, "has an unflagging commitment to providing adequate services for all its special-education students." And it has "developed programs within our school walls that provide effective special-education services for all children, regardless of their disability."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612, dhardy@phillynews.com, or @DanInq@DanInq on Twitter.