By Reps. Mike Sturla, Jim Roebuck, Mark Longietti
Nearly 270,000 Pennsylvania children -- one out of every 6.5 students – receive special education services in our public schools. While the number has steadily grown over the years, funding for special education has been stagnant since 2009. Many school districts around the state struggle to deliver the services that they’re mandated by law to provide.
The shortfall is partly due to an antiquated state funding formula, which assumes that a blanket 16 percent of students – the statewide average -- require special education programs regardless of the actual number. In reality the percentage of special education students served in school districts across the state ranges from 8 percent to 26 percent.
Recently, the Special Education Funding Commission, established under Act 3 of 2013 and consisting of lawmakers and officials from the governor’s administration, released a report with recommendations to address the chronic underfunding of special education, including instituting a new formula to distribute funds.
By adequately investing in special education we aid our students in meeting academic standards, as well as transitioning into higher education, employment, independent living and community participation. The recommendations in the commission’s report provide a blueprint on ways to address the challenge of more equitably funding special education.
In reality, inequitable, and in many cases insufficient funding, for special education is just a symptom of a larger ailment in securing adequate funding for all education in the commonwealth.
The reductions in education dollars over the past three budget cycles have already begun to have a negative impact on test scores, and tuition at our universities has surged. Every dollar we cut from education has an impact on a child somewhere: whether it’s in Philadelphia, where at one point this fall there was one guidance counselor serving 3,700 students; or the dozens of jobs cut from Mercer County’s school districts; or, the program cuts due to fewer Accountability Block Grants in Lancaster.
The same inequity and inefficiency that plagues special education funding is a problem across the board with the state education budget, where wealthier districts often receive smaller per-pupil cuts than the painful, damaging cuts endured by districts in lower-income neighborhoods.
The Special Education Funding Commission was a truly bipartisan effort aimed at benefiting Pennsylvania students. We hope that the same spirit of bipartisanship sweeps through the legislature in the upcoming year’s budget, and that we invest in all of Pennsylvania’s students regardless of their special needs or their zip code.
Mike Sturla, Jim Roebuck, and Mark Longietti are all state representatives.