For the first time, Pennsylvania lawmakers are developing a specific funding formula for special education in the commonwealth.
Currently, funding is based on the assumption that within every school district 16 percent of the students are in need of special education.
“Some schools have less than 16 percent, other districts have more,” said New Castle Area School District Superintendent John Sarandrea. “We would be one that has a little more than 20 percent, but we’re being funded as if we have 16 percent, so it’s clearly not enough. You shouldn’t be funding a school district that has a 9 percent population as if they had 16 percent either.”
This year the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill that amended the Public School Code. The bill set up the Special Education Funding Commission, which is charged with developing a funding formula that will be more in line with districts’ needs.
That commission has been holding hearings across the state, including on in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Sarandrea was one of several people testifying on the need for a funding formula that reflects actual numbers. Commission Co-Chair, Rep. Bernie O’Neill, said that’s the whole idea behind this effort.
“For the first time we’re going to get a true count of every school district’s special education population,” O’Neill said. “They will be broken down into three categories, and then the money will be driven out to the school districts based on their needs and the students’ needs rather than some arbitrary number of 16 percent.”
O’Neill said this is critical because special education in the public schools is the most costly component of general education. It’s also the most mandated.
“There’s a lot of things school districts have to do that they don’t have a choice," O'Neill said. "Whether they have the money or not — they have to do it because it’s mandated by law, either federal law, state law, or in some cases the court has ordered things have to be done to meet a students’ special needs. What we’re trying to do is come up with a more fair and equitable funding formula."
The public hearings will continue through September in other parts of the state. The Special Education Funding Commission will release its recommendations to lawmakers by the end of November.