Op/Ed: Time to fix Special Ed. funding

It’s time for a funding system based on actual needs

By Lisa Lightner, Special to The Times


Lisa Lightner, as seen with her special needs son at The White House, recently.

The time is now to reform Pennsylvania’s special education funding

Based on broad, bi-partisan support, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has introduced companion special education funding reform bills: HB 2138 and SB 1316. These companion bills represent a huge first step toward fixing Pennsylvania’s flawed special education system – which does not provide enough resources for special education in the right places.

Here is a quick background on special education funding reform. The way the funding structure is now, there’s a set dollar amount per child and the state funds each school at 16% assuming that every district has 16% kids with IEPs. The 16% number is the figure the state uses even though many schools are at 20-25% or more and diagnoses are skyrocketing.

The new funding structure currently being considered will change two things. One is that each district will be funded on the actual number of kids with IEPs per school district. The second thing that it does is that each child will be in a Tier-1, 2, or 3. Tier 1 is a child with low needs and three is high needs and requiring more services. There are measures in place to keep districts from over-identifying. But bottom line is, each district could soon be funded based on the actual number of students with disabilities it has and on each child’s needs.

This tiered approach was recommended by the General Assembly’s Special Education Funding Commission in its report released late last year. The bi-partisan Commission spent months traveling the state to learn from all interested stakeholders about special education costs, services, and best practices.  Based on that extensive research, Commission members made recommendations, which are contained in both bills, for fixing Pennsylvania’s broken system of special education funding.

As a parent and an advocate for children with disabilities I’ve seen the impact of the current flawed system. Fundamental needs that often go under-served include adequate staffing and professional development; assistive technology devices; and other student supports and services. In many cases, schools do not effectively include and educate eligible students with disabilities in regular classrooms with supports. Pennsylvania ranks among the states offering the least inclusion, despite legal mandates for considering this process and despite proven benefits in school and after graduation for students with disabilities, with some exceptions, and their peers.

Funding and accountability reforms are needed for increasing the amount and quality of appropriate inclusion in public schools. That’s true of all public schools — both charter and district-run.

Historically, charter schools have not equitably served students with disabilities compared to their authorizing school districts. In every heavily charterized school district, such as the Chester-Upland School District and the School District of Philadelphia, the neighborhood public schools are serving a greater portion of students with more severe disabilities than their charter school counterparts.

At the same time, charters are receiving payments for students with disabilities that are not connected to costs. So a charter school in Chester is receiving $35,000 for a student with mild disability who may only cost $17,000 to appropriately educate. That same charter may serve a students with a more severe disability who requires $50,000 in services – yet they only receive $35,000.

The new system proposed in these two bills corrects that inefficiency for both charters and district-run schools by utilizing the three-tiered system, which better aligns resources to costs. For the district-run schools the three-tiered approach is applied only to any new state dollars added to the special education line item starting this year. For charters, the three-tiered approach would phase in over several years. It’s a sound solution to fixing the flawed special education funding system, and our legislators deserve credit for working to address this problem.

It’s discouraging, therefore, to hear leaders of the charter school advocacy community dismiss this legislation. Special education funding is a complex issue that not only impacts Pennsylvania’s 270,000 students with disabilities but the quality of services available for students without special needs. Overall, HB 2138 and SB 1316 provide, for the first time, an efficient and equitable formula for distributing special education dollars that aligns resources with true costs of serving students. Children with disabilities, and all children throughout Pennsylvania, will benefit from this legislation and its solution to fixing the broken system for special education funding and accountability.

Call your State Senators and State Representatives and tell them that you support these two bills.

Lisa Lightner is a Special Education Advocate, inspired by her own son with special needs. She is on the faculty at The National Special Education Advocacy Institute and is on the Board of Directors for the Pennsylvania Education for All Coalition. She has helped to change special education funding legislation in her state and she and her sons were invited to meet Governor Corbett when some of the funding reform legislation was signed by him last year. Lisa is a credentialed lobbyist for the UN Foundation and champions for many maternal/child issues such as education, vaccines, and eliminating poverty in our country. Her award winning special needs parenting blog, “A Day in our Shoes” has received accolades such as being named the #14 Family Blog in the country for 2012 and as one of “Philadelphia’s Most Valuable Bloggers.” She has been featured on several Philadelphia TV shows and publications and recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website. She has been published in Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Babycenter, Autism Today, Valpak, MSN Money, MetroKids and she serves as a Mom Ambassador for national brands McDonald’s, Sesame Place, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Longwood Gardens and the National Constitution Center. 

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