By Steven Hoffman
Lisa Lightner and her 7-year-old son, Kevin, will be heading to Harrisburg on Friday for the ceremonial signing of a bill that will overhaul how state funding for special education is distributed to school districts.
“We’re pleased that the bill passed,” said Lightner, a special advocate for Arc of Chester County, which provides services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their families. In her role as special education advocate, Lightner works directly with students and parents as they seek to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) with principals and teachers.
HB 2, which was unanimously approved by the State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in April, changes how the state reimburses school districts for special education costs and establishes a 15-member Special Education Funding Commission that will review and make recommendations related to future special education funding later this year.
“It’s a great step forward because people supported special education,” Lightner said.
The funding formula is expected to be adjusted so that school districts receive funding that is closer to the actual costs that they incur while providing services to students with special needs. Currently, Lightner said, the funding formula assumes that 16 percent of all students enrolled in the district need special-education services. It’s rarely the case that it works out to be exactly 16 percent, so some school districts are continually under-funded.
“The statistics tell us that 15 to 20 percent of all kids will have IEPs,” Lightner pointed out.
Additionally, the new law stipulates that the cost of providing special education services will be divided into three categories, ranging from least intensive to most intensive. Lightner explained that the provision establishing three tiers for special education funding is important because students with IEPs have a wide array of needs. Some students might just need some physical therapy while others could require a range of learning support services. Again, some school districts are perpetually under-funded from the state.
Lightner, a resident of Avondale, said that she became involved in special education advocacy when her son was two years old and she found out that he would need extra assistance as he developed. Working to get that help for her son was a challenge.
“It’s really an overwhelming process,” Lightner said. “I’m college educated and I had so much trouble figuring it out.”
Lightner found out about a special-education advocacy training class that the Arc of Chester County offered. She took the class thinking that it would help her advocate for her own son, but when she found out about how so many other parents needed help getting schools to develop programs that meet the needs of each student. She decided to become a volunteer advocate and, later, accepted a job doing this kind of work.
Many parents enlist the help of Arc of Chester County when they feel like they can’t get the services that they need from school districts. The parents go through an interview with Arc and then their cases can be turned over to advocates like Lightner. She works mainly with families in the southern part of Chester County—primarily in the Coatesville, Oxford, and Kennett school districts, as well as the Avon Grove Charter School.
The advocates work with all the members of the IEP team, which can include students, parents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, and special-education officials.
“I try to work with the entire team. It really is a collaborative process,” Lightner said. “I don’t want it to be adversarial.”
Many times, a student might have an undiagnosed condition—ADHD is one common example--which is complicating his or her performance in school. An advocate can work with the IEP team to make sure the students are receiving the help that they need to succeed. The special-needs students themselves are as involved in the process as they can be because it’s important for them to be able to speak up on their own behalf.
“One of the goals is to teach the students self-advocacy,” Lightner said. “There parents aren’t always going to be there to advocate for them.”
Complicating matters is the challenge that school districts face trying to fund all the services that students need. Most school districts in the state have faced serious budgetary constraints in recent years as funding from the state has been stagnant and local revenues have been on the decline. The proposed budget allocates approximately $1 billion for special education funding for the 2013-14 school year, and overall funding for special education has been flat for about the last six years.
“It’s unfortunate,” Lightner said. “There is so much need out there. We need to value education more as a society. If we aren’t going to invest in our kids and their futures, what are we going to invest in?”
All students are affected by the budget constraints, but this may be particularly true of students with special needs.
“What we’re seeing a lot of now,” said Lightner, “is kids who just can’t cope with big classes of 25 or 30 students. In these larger classrooms, a lot of kids are struggling.”
Students with special needs are very likely to become targets of bullying, which makes their school experiences more difficult. Once the slide starts, it’s difficult for students to turn around. Students with reading disabilities are more likely to end up being suspended from school, and Lightner said that in some school districts they can account for nearly half of all the suspensions. Studies have also shown that a majority of people in prison had reading disabilities.
“School is such a struggle for them and it shouldn’t be such a painful process,” Lightner said.
While many parents in Lightner’s position would choose to focus only on the well-being of their own child, Lightner is determined to help other special education students receive the free and appropriate public education that they are titled to.
“Everyone has value and something to offer society,” she said.
Lightner even started her own blog, www.adayinourshoes.com, that focuses on the needs of special-education students. She answers questions from parents from all over the United States in an “Ask the Advocate” column. Hearing about what some of the parents in other parts of the country go through gave Lightner a real understanding about how much help is available to families in Chester County.
“We’re very lucky here,” she said. “Chester County is a great place to live. We are fortunate to have the resources that we have. There are other places where there are no advocates and no advocacy organizations.”
But even in Chester County there is much room for improvement and the provisions in HB 2 will only help so much.
School districts would be able to help more students reach their potential if they had sufficient funding to provide them with what they need.
“We know what programs that work,” she said, “but schools need the resources to implement them.”