Gilhool Resigns Amid Special-Education Funding Dispute

By Debra Viadero — June 14, 1989 2 min read

Thomas K. Gilhool, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, resigned last week amid a public furor over changes in the state’s system of funding special-education programs.

Mr. Gilhool submitted his resignation to Gov. Robert P. Casey on June 5. Carl S. Dellmuth, the education department’s chief of staff, will serve as acting secretary until Mr. Gilhool’s replacement is named.

The controversy over special-education funding erupted earlier this year when the Casey administration, faced with a growing deficit in state special-education spending, launched an effort to shift more of the costs for special education to the state’s general fund.

Specifically, responsibility for music, art, and physical-education programs for handicapped and gifted children, which had previously been provided in state-funded intermediate units, was shifted to local school districts, where officials must help finance them with general state school aid. (See Education Week, April 26, 1989.)

Grueling Reviews

The effort, carried out this spring in grueling reviews of local special-education budgets, prompted an outcry from the state school boards association, teachers’ unions, special educators, and parents. They accused state officials of trying to balance the special-education budget on the backs of districts, and warned that the quality of services for special-needs students would suffer as a result.

In recent weeks, the controversy had progressed to the point that a handful of local school boards and superintendents were calling for Mr. Gilhool’s resignation.

And, as late as last Wednesday, a coalition made up of five statewide education groups filed for a court injunction to block the department’s cost-shifting plans.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Gilhool said that he was stepping aside to allow the Governor to “do what needs to be done in education without the personalizing which has arisen in some quarters around me.”

“It had become evident,” said an education department spokesman, “that issues were not being discussed on their merit but were being discussed around Tom Gilhool.”

Mr. Gilhool’s problems with local officials began long before the recent fiscal crisis in special education, advocates for the handicapped and other observers say.

History of Friction

“There has been friction all along,” said Shirley Keith Knox, who heads the education committee of the Association for Retarded Citizens of Pennsylvania.

“A lot of the criticism of Mr. Gilhool was because of his interest in integrating students with disabilities” into regular classrooms, added Ms. Knox, whose group supported that effort.

Mr. Gilhool, who has served as education secretary for two and a half years, is a proponent of the “regular-education initiative,” a movement to serve handicapped children entirely in the regular classroom, rather than pulling them out for special help in resource rooms.

Even though his actions in the area had been limited to funding a few model programs, some feared the effort would result in the widescale “dumping” of handicapped children into regular classrooms, where they would not get adequate services, said Representative Ronald Cowell, the Allegheny County Democrat who chairs the House education committee.

A number of critics attributed the controversial shift in responsibility for special-education costs to Mr. Gilhool’s vision for greater integration.

“To a large extent, it’s a question of style,” Mr. Cowell said. “But many of the issues the secretary did raise remain very legitimate issues and those kinds of issues remain on the agenda.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as Gilhool Resigns Amid Special-Education Funding Dispute