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June 18, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Special education funding aims to fund actual number of students based on need

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania school districts have received the same proportionate funding for special education, regardless of the actual number of students with special needs, but this session, lawmakers want to right-size that funding.

Senate Bill 1115, sponsored by Majority Whip Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, would create a commission to establish a new funding formula based on a three-tiered system categorizing the severity of disabilities, with more funding going toward those with more severe disabilities. The formula would take into account the specific number of students with disabilities, using state Department of Education data.

The bill unanimously passed through the House Education Committee on Monday and awaits a final vote in the state House. The state Senate passed the proposal earlier this month.

State Sen. Pat Browne

The formula would apply to special education funding starting in fiscal 2013-14, should the state increase spending for special education. That means present funding levels wouldn’t change, until the formula is applied to additional dollars targeted toward special education.

“This legislation will drive the money to the school districts that have the most costly students, no matter what their funding is,” said bill advocate state Rep. Bernie O’Neill, R-Bucks, who added that special education funding has been flat since 2006 while costs continue to increase.

The bill had widespread support from the education community, including the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools. Beth Olanoff, the advocacy group’s executive director, said special education funding has been an increasing burden for school districts.

State Rep. Bernie O'Neill

“This will make it possible going forward for the state to actually recognize the real costs of educating children with different levels of disabilities,” Olanoff said of the legislation.

The current system assumes that students with disabilities make up about 16 percent of a district’s student population. Under the new formula, the true costs of educating the exact number of students given their specific disabilities would be determined.

O’Neill said he hopes the bill passes quickly, so the commission of legislators could be set up by the end of the year and provide information that could apply toward the next budget year.

Similar bills in the past have gone nowhere, because legislators didn’t want to take away money from their school district, said O’Neill.

But the new proposal contains a “hold harmless” provision that prevents the removal of any funding already allocated to a school district. This provision, O’Neill said, was intended for legislators who fear the commission would further slash funding for special education.

The commission would reconvene every five years to assess the formula. The bill also allows the commission to study and recommend possible restructuring of special education programs for cost savings.

Exact figures on how many school districts educate fewer than 16 percent of students with special needs were not available.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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