Debate Rages in Pennsylvania Over Special Needs Funding

Pennsylvania’s legislature has two bills traveling through the House and the Senate, both aiming to repair education funding for students with special needs.  The Education Funding Formula Commission has recommended, reports Jeff Frantz on PennLive,  that schools be reimbursed the actual costs of teaching special needs children.  At this time, all school districts get reimbursed based on an an average of 16%  special needs population.  If a district has more than 16% special needs students, it is underfunded.  If it has less it is overfunded.

The proposal, which is the basis for the two bills, suggests a three-tiered formula.  One part of that formula proposes that payment to both traditional schools and charter schools be based on a “per pupil basis”.  But, charter schools are not in agreement.  Cyber students and special needs students in charter schools would be looking at a 30-60% cut in their funding, which would not occur if they attended traditional public school.  Many charters would not be able to provide the federally required services for their students.

Sen. Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh), the sponsor of the Senate bill, said some of the charter schools financial concerns will have to be addressed by lengthening the phase in, but bristled at the suggestion this fight is only about special needs funding.

In reality, Browne said, the charters are arguing over how districts reimburse charters. That, he said, is where much of the disparity comes from.

He added that the proposal just wants to get the reimbursements in line with actual cost per student.  Brown would like to revisit that issue of how charters are funded, but says it should be addressed by a separate commission on the state’s basic education formula.

Bill Winters, the CEO of the 2,700 student Collegium Charter School, says the proposal would cut his funding by$3.9 million .  He said the school could not run without that funding.

Sara K. Satullo writes in the Express-Times that  charter school supporters and administrators held a press conference Wednesday to share their objections to the three-tiered plan.  They included:

  1. For traditional schools, the new formula, which would be based on actual per student costs, would come from a new source of $20 million included in the governor’s budget.
  2. For charter and cyber schools, the formula would apply to all funding for special education the schools receive.
  3. The Pennsylvania Coalition for Charter Schools  thinks the formula proposed by the commission was good, but the implementation will result in inequity.

“… it would create a second class of disabled students in charter schools, who deserve equity”, said Larry Jones, president of the charter school group PCCS and CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School.

As of now, the funding formula is set to be phased in over a three year period, which may have to be extended. The executive director of  the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools, Bob Fayfich, says that the basic education funding formula for the state is flawed.  This notion may be based on the fact that charter schools, which the state assumes have lower operating costs than traditional public schools, receive  70% of what traditional districts are given.

Winters acknowledges charter schools may receive more special education reimbursement from sending districts than a student costs; but that balances out them being short-changed on the regular ed funding, he said.