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Pa. Plan To Cut Funding to Special-Needs Schools Stirs Debate

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A plan by Pennsylvania officials to redirect funding from private schools for students with special needs to public school districts could force the schools to shut down and disrupt the children's education, critics of the proposal have charged.

"If this goes through, these approved private schools are going to disappear, some of them immediately,'' said Rep. Dennis M. O'Brien, a Philadelphia Republican who is trying to defeat the measure.

"Children are going to be hurt by the abrupt elimination of the line item,'' added Kathleen R. Duplantier, the executive director of the Green Tree School for severely disturbed children in Philadelphia.

Since the mid-1970's, Pennsylvania has given money directly to what are called approved private schools, which currently serve about 4,500 students. Most of the schools are in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and their suburbs.

As part of his budget package for fiscal 1994, Gov. Robert P. Casey recommended that the state stop channeling special-education money directly to all but a handful of the 34 approved private schools.

The only schools that would continue to receive money directly would be four schools that serve deaf students and blind students.

Under Mr. Casey's proposal, $60 million would be distributed to public schools based on the state special-education formula.

Equity and Flexibility

State officials maintain that redistributing the aid is more equitable to the public schools and would give them more flexibility in determining the best and least restrictive learning environment for students.

"We believe that programatically, it is better for children,'' said John Tommasini, the director of special-education planning and analysis at the state education department.

"We will provide school districts with the complete responsibility for planning and development and determining what a child's needs are and where that child's needs should be met,'' he said.

Districts would be able to contract with the private schools if officials believed they offered the most appropriate placement, and would not have to seek education department approval.

The state also maintains that the geographic redistribution of funds would help comply with a January court decision ordering the state to make greater efforts to enable students with disabilities to remain in their home communities. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

Because the money would be distributed to districts throughout the state, however, districts in the large metropolitan areas would face a loss in state aid as a result of the proposal.

The Philadelphia district, which is facing a $60 million deficit, would have to come up with an estimated $8.2 million to cover the extra costs of the 1,006 students who attend the approved private schools, according to Charles R. Glean, the district's executive director of student services.

While expressing concern about funding, Mr. Glean also voiced support for the Governor's proposal.

"We certainly prefer to do business directly with the private schools,'' he said.

Running Out of Time

Representative O'Brien and other critics contend that the argument that the Governor's plan would provide for a more equitable distribution of funding is disingenuous. Although most of the private schools are in the state's two largest metropolitan areas, he said, they attract students from across the state.

"That is hideous to think that equal access means you get rid of terrific programs,'' Mr. O'Brien said in reference to the court decision.

If they are unable to sign contracts with districts by June, the private schools will have to lay off teachers and cut programs, according to private school administrators.

Meanwhile, a state budget accord is at least two weeks away and more likely will not be completed until mid-June, lawmakers say.

Further complicating the situation is the possibility that the funding could get caught up in the state's ongoing dispute over outcome-based education. Action by the House as part of that debate has led to the withholding of special-education payments to districts, although that has not affected the private schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 24, 1993.)

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