Pa. Special-Ed. Funding Linked to Charter Law Changes
A long-awaited overhaul of Pennsylvania's special-education funding system is on hold this fall, awaiting agreement on proposed charter law changes, according to the chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee.
A Republican spokesman denied that, saying the issues were not being linked.
In June, a state special-education funding bill won overwhelming Senate approval and unanimous House support in preliminary votes.
But the last-minute insertion of an amendment to the state charter law sidetracked final approval. Both issues were shelved until this fall.
Parts of the proposed changes to the charter law are controversial, including the creation of a state board with the power to approve charter applications and a proposal to exclude records of charter school "vendors," including for-profit charter operators, from the state's Right to Know Law. Now, only school boards can approve regular charter applications.
This fall, passage of the special-education bill is again on hold pending agreement on charter law changes, said State Rep. Michael Sturla (D. Lancaster), House Democratic Policy Committee chair.
The special-education bill, he said, "is being held hostage" to secure support of legislators who might otherwise not support charter law changes.
The proposed special-education legislation, Sturla said, "has widespread, bipartisan support. The current funding formula doesn't make any sense."
Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said in an e-mail: "Good discussions are ongoing related to the charter reform legislation and the special education funding commission."
He added: "I'm honestly at a loss as to why Rep. Sturla would make a claim like that, unless he's simply trying to score some partisan points."
Currently, the state gives school districts a set amount for each learning-disabled student regardless of his or her disability. The law also caps state special-education payments to school districts at 16 percent of their total enrollment.
Under the new law, payments for the most severely impaired students would be based on their actual numbers in districts, not a statewide average. A legislative commission would fill in details by next fall. The formula would apply to increases above current levels.
The 16 percent cap on state special-education funding shortchanges districts with a higher percentage of special-needs students, Sturla said.
In 2010-11, more than 200 of Pennsylvania's 500 districts faced that situation. Some have more than 25 percent special-education students; dozens, including eight in the Philadelphia area, have more than 20 percent.
There were about 270,000 public school special-education students in 2011-12—about 15.1 percent of total enrollment.
Pennsylvania school districts, charters, and vo-tech schools spent close to $3.4 billion on special education in 2010-11. State funding this school year is about $950 million; it has not increased for five years. Federal funding is about $426 million.
Vol. 32, Issue 06