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PA State Special-Ed Funding Falls Far Behind Need

Since 2009, special-education costs in Pennsylvania have risen by $1.54 billion, but state funding has increased only $72 million. (ernestoeslava/Pixabay)
Since 2009, special-education costs in Pennsylvania have risen by $1.54 billion, but state funding has increased only $72 million. (ernestoeslava/Pixabay)
October 10, 2018

PHILADELPHIA – Local school districts are picking up more and more of the costs of special education as state funding lags, according to a new report.

On average, the Education Law Center report said, the share of special-education funding that comes from local districts grew by 9 percent over eight years. For 53 of the state's 500 districts, the increase was 20 percent or more.

Reynelle Brown Staley, policy attorney at the center, said the gap has been growing because the cost of special education has increased at a rate of about 5 percent every year.

"But state funding is increasing at roughly 1 percent per year," she said, "and it's simply not enough to meet the gap between what districts need and what students need to get the educational services that they are entitled to."

Staley said now is the time for the state's Special Education Funding Commission to review the funding system and demand prompt action from the Legislature.

Total spending for special education has grown by more than $1.5 billion since 2009, but state funding increased by only $72 million. Staley pointed out that when state and federal funds fall short, local districts need to make up the difference.

"They're needing to look elsewhere in their budgets for funding, to raise taxes," she said, "and in some cases, they're having to cut services because there simply isn't enough funding coming from the state."

Local districts now put in almost $20 for every $1 in increased special-education funding that comes from the state.

A study eight years ago found a $2,000 gap between per-pupil spending and student needs. Staley said simply returning to that state funding level now would require spending increases of at least $100 million a year over several years.

"But we know, based on that 2009 costing-out study, that showed that districts were significantly underfunding special education, that the state needs to do even more than that to actually meet the needs of students with disabilities," she said.

Staley said the special-education funding needs don't even include an estimated $3 billion gap in basic education funding.

The study is online at elc-pa.org.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA