HARRISBURG – A legislative panel must deliver recommendations by the end of this month on how the state can better divide its special education funding among its 500 school districts.
As that process has unfolded, two issues in particular, seem to have caught the attention of lawmakers on the commission, said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, a member of the special education funding commission.
One is when school districts learn how much special education money they’re going to get from the state.
The other is that the state may need to re-examine how it determines which schools get special assistance to help cover the cost of educating students with exceptionally-expensive special education needs, Longietti said.
The contingency fund is supposed to provide help for school districts that have children with very expensive special education needs. To qualify, a student’s special education costs must exceed at least $75,000 a year, according to Department of Education data.
In the current fiscal year, the budget includes almost $10 million in the contingency fund. Because that’s just a fraction of the $1 billion in special education spending, there are far more requests for contingency fund help than the fund can support, said Hannah Barrick, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
The contingency fund gives priority to covering the costs of the students with the most expensive special education needs, regardless of the size of the school district in which they live or the number of students with expensive special needs served by the district, she said.
That’s a problem for small districts, particularly if a group home opens in the area and the schools find themselves serving multiple children with expensive special education needs, Longietti said.
“Maybe we need to allocate it differently,” Longietti said.
The other issue is that while school districts learn how much basic education funding they are going to get in the summer before the school years starts, the state doesn’t announce special education funding allocations until well after the school year has started, Barrick said.
School officials would like to see the state begin announcing the special education funding at the same time it announces basic education funding, she said.
The state’s formula for dividing special education dollars was last revised in 2014. The state’s formula for dividing basic education spending was updated in 2016.
While the formulas are similar, advocacy groups have suggested that the special education funding commission ought to more closely follow the measures used in the 2016 basic education funding change, that “more accurately measure each school district’s wealth and tax effort” in determining how much help the state should provide.
“There is no policy or research-based rationale for using different district characteristics in the special education formula when we have more accurate metrics already in use in the basic education formula,” said Reynelle Brown Staley, policy director at the Education Law Center.
The commission is required to issue its report to the General Assembly no later than Nov. 30, so that its recommendations can be included in the state’s budget planning for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, lawmakers said when the commission started its work earlier this fall.