Pennsylvania’s system for subsidizing private schools that are eligible to receive public money for serving children with severe disabilities has broken down—and state leaders are struggling to come up with solutions to fix it.
The state has fallen behind by at least $23 million—and possibly as much as $16 million more, depending on the interpretation of audits of schools’ expenditures—in reimbursing the 30 “approved private schools” and four charter schools that educate some 4,000 Pennsylvania children with severe disabilities. Many of those schools are still owed money from the 2000-01 school year.
The label “approved private schools” is misleading. Under a system established in 1963, the schools serve only children who have been placed with them from public schools, and thus are dependent on public funds. Pennsylvania provides 60 percent and the local school district antes up 40 percent of the money to pay for a special education student to attend an approved private school.
The line item in the state’s budget for such services has run short of the schools’ expenses since 1999. A separate account—the audit-resolution fund—that the state dipped into in recent years to close that gap ran dry for the first time this fiscal year.
How to resolve the issue is part of the debate that lawmakers are embroiled in as they try to agree on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“The schools provided in good faith the educational services and are due those monies. We shouldn’t be proposing new programs until our obligations are met,” said Rep. Carole A. Rubley, a Republican, who believes the budget should include enough money to cover the current debt to the approved private schools and charters.
But Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., the Democratic chairman of the House education committee, said it’s not clear how the legislature would come up with adequate funds to fill the gap in the short term.
“We have to look at the whole scope of the problems,” he said, citing, for instance, how the private schools are audited. “I’m not sure we should measure the amount of money spent, but rather the success of the effort.”
Still, he agreed with Ms. Rubley that the schools must somehow be paid in full for whatever services they’ve provided so far.
Gerald Zahorchak, the deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education for the Pennsylvania education department, said the state is not legally obligated to reimburse the approved private schools on the difference between what’s in the state budget and their expenditures for the students. “We can only pay what we have,” he said in an interview last week.
But Mr. Zahorchak also indicated that the department was trying to come up with ways to pay the schools in full, while also fixing the problem in the long run.
‘Making a Stink’
In February, the education department sent letters to some of the schools, saying the state would pay half of what the schools were owed for the 2000-01 school year and calling that amount a final payment for that year.
It was such a letter that spurred Ernest E. Brattstrom Jr., the executive director of the Vanguard School in Paoli, Pa., one of the affected schools, into political action. “That’s when we started making a stink,” he said.
Mr. Brattstrom began traveling to Harrisburg, the state capital, to lobby legislators on the problem. On March 25, his school hosted a delegation of House Republicans who held a hearing on the issue.
Just two days earlier, parents with children enrolled in approved private schools organized a rally of about 300 people in Harrisburg to push lawmakers to address the lag in funding.
Mr. Brattstrom said almost all of the Vanguard School’s funding is public, coming either from the 70 districts that place children with disabilities there or the state. He deemed it unacceptable that in 2004, his school has received only half of what it is owed by the state for the 2000-01 school year.
Without those funds, Mr. Brattstrom said, Vanguard has had to cease expansion of services, even though public school districts have a huge need for such schools. The 200-student school, located in a Philadelphia suburb, received 500 applications for 30 slots this school year, he noted.
Mr. Zahorchak said the current system for funding approved private schools must be overhauled or the state will constantly find itself in arrears.
Moreover, he said, the system is unfair to 260 of the state’s 501 districts. They aren’t able to use state subsidies for students with severe disabilities because those districts don’t have approved private schools nearby, and consequently, must pay 100 percent of the costs.
Also, he said, the current system offers no guidelines for how much it should cost to educate a specific special education student in an approved private school.