Pa. Revisits Tough Special Education Funding Issues

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Pennsylvania lawmakers ditched the state's former special education funding system in 1991, saying that it was too generous. Now, a bipartisan group of legislators says that today's aid formula is too stingy, and that it's time to raise spending on special education by as much as $117 million a year.

Three new special education funding bills would help the state's schools meet rising special education costs, which, observers say, are increasingly siphoning money from other academic areas.

And, even though the proposals face resistance from Republican Gov. Tom Ridge and have yet to be taken up by a legislative committee, they have renewed debate on a historically thorny issue here and nationwide. For example, a 1996 report by the Center for Special Education Finance in Palo Alto, Calif., found that two-thirds of the states were considering changes in special education finance. ("States Rethink How To Pay For Special Ed.," Nov. 27, 1996.)

"Special education, because of its growth and lack of controls, has become a huge issue in Pennsylvania," said Paula Hess, the executive director of the House education committee. "Momentum is mounting to address this."

Cadillac for All

Before 1991, Pennsylvania districts were fully reimbursed for the amount they spent educating special education students over and above regular students. But as state outlays for special education skyrocketed, lawmakers put the brakes on.

"There were no penalties for increasing costs," said William Penn, the director of the state education department's bureau of special education. That meant districts wouldn't pinch pennies on programs. As Mr. Penn puts it, "Everybody could have a Cadillac."

In place of the old system, the legislature created a funding formula based on the assumption that 1 percent of the students in each of the state's 501 districts are severely disabled, and 15 percent are mildly disabled. Currently, there are 280,000 special education students in the state.

The formula is relatively easy to use and predictable, but it has its faults. The most obvious is that the special education populations in several districts exceed the state-assumed ratios, while other districts get the same aid even if they have lower percentages.

Administrators in the Pittsburgh schools, for example, report that 18 percent of their 40,500 students are mildly disabled, while 1.5 percent are severely disabled.

Under a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ronald R. Cowell, the minority chairman of the House education committee, districts would be reimbursed for at least half their special education costs in excess of their costs for regular students. The price tag on his bill is about $95 million a year.

The ante was raised further by Rep. Jess M. Stairs, the Republican chairman of the education panel. His bill would add extra money for low-wealth districts, raising special education aid by $117 million, to a total of $731 million in fiscal 1999. Republican Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson introduced a companion bill.

"These [bills] go a long way to answering our concern that there be a formula with some predictability and while reflecting the real populations," said Richard R. Fellers, the executive director of business affairs for the Pittsburgh schools. "We can't be unhappy with this."

But resistance to the proposals is mounting, most significantly from Gov. Ridge.

"In some ways, these resemble the excess-cost system that was eliminated and which was a blank check for districts," said Dan Langan, the spokesman for the state education department. "We're still taking a close look at them."

Mr. Ridge has proposed increasing fiscal 1999 special education aid by $20 million over fiscal 1998, to $634 million. "The administration has recognized that special education funding is an issue, and has increased funding by $63.5 million during the past three years," Mr. Langan said.

Alternative Ideas

Local and state school leaders say there are other ways to cut the Keystone State's special education costs that are not in the legislation. For example, Pennsylvania's special education statutes apply to academically gifted students. As a result, districts must spend time and resources on individualized education programs--which are mandated for children in special education--for gifted students.

The state also sets class-size limits for special education students that are not required under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

According to Mr. Penn, "What we would like to do is deregulate and fall back to the federal law."

While special education advocates say that new funds are always welcome, they are leery of any policy changes designed to save money.

"People have the right to special education, and money is not considered a defense for them not getting it," said Bill West, the executive director of The Arc, Pennsylvania, which advocates on behalf of people with mental retardation.

Ultimately, the cost of inaction may go beyond dollars and cents.

Thomas J. Gentzel, the assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, fears a backlash against special education as it competes for money.

"I can already see taxpayer anger directed at kids in special education," he said, "and we want to avoid this."

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Web Resources
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Education's Web site contains a wealth of information about its special education programs and explains in great detail parents' rights.
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