Open Letter to PA Special Education Funding Commission from PA Schools Work Campaign

The Special Education Funding Commission of the Pennsylvania legislature reconvened August 27, 2019, for the first time in nearly six years to examine the impact of the 2014 funding formula that now directs state special education funding. Education Law Center joined with the statewide PA Schools Work campaign to issue an open letter with a set of recommendations to the commission for addressing the continued state underfunding of education.

Over the past decade, the state’s contribution to special education costs has dropped from a one-third share to just 22%. The letter urges a “fuller and fairer allocation of funding for special education.” The commission will be meeting and holding hearings over a three-month period.

Read the letter.

ELC Calls on Gov. Wolf to Propose Major Increase in Special Ed Funding

Following on our October report, “Shortchanging Children with Disabilities: State Underfunding of Special Education in Pennsylvania,” the Education Law Center wrote Gov. Tom Wolf in January, urging that his 2019-20 budget proposal include a $400 million increase in state funding for basic education and a $100 million increase in special education funding, to be distributed to districts through the existing funding formulas. Read our letter, press release, and news coverage.

Education Law Center Statement on Governor Tom Wolf’s Pennsylvania Budget Address

Feb. 7, 2017
Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, issued this statement following Governor Tom Wolf’s budget address today:
“Governor Wolf’s proposed increase in state funding for basic, special, and early education in next year’s budget is welcome given the Commonwealth’s difficult budget situation. His proposal to increase early education funding by $75 million and to allocate additional funding to early intervention services represent crucial investments that will help ensure more children enter school ready to learn. But while any additional funding helps, the Governor’s proposed increase of $100 million in basic education and $25 million in special education funding will not be enough to allow schools to close longstanding resource gaps. Our schools currently face a $3 billion adequacy gap. And Pennsylvania ranks 46th in terms of state share of K-12 education funding and has the largest gap in the nation between what our poorest and wealthiest districts receive. Continued educational investments are key to the Commonwealth’s long-term economic competitiveness. We must build off recent successes, including modest increases to basic education funding and the adoption of a fair funding formula to equitably distribute new educational investments to the districts and students who need help the most. We will continue to work with the Governor and the General Assembly to ensure that the budget reflects Pennsylvanians’ priorities and the needs of our students.”
 

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness.  For more information visit https://elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

ELC Statement on the Final Passage of the 16-17 State Budget Bill

July 1, 2016

 

Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, issued the following statement on the final passage of the 16-17 state budget bill.

“While we are pleased that the General Assembly has approved an additional $200 million in funding for basic education, $20 million in special education, and $25 million in early education, this increased appropriation still falls far short of what our children need and what Governor Wolf originally requested. And while we applaud the state for utilizing a new bipartisan funding formula to distribute the basic education dollars more fairly, this formula is only as good as the money that funds it. This year’s amount is insufficient to close the massive adequacy gaps that exist.

This agreement will allow school districts to plug budget holes in the short term, but it will also prevent schools from making important investments to improve student performance.  At the same time, this budget locks in long-term structural inequities that leave many of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren behind.

Even as we call on the Governor and the General Assembly to continue to work together to bring needed resources back into our schools, we know that tens of thousands of Pennsylvania children can no longer wait for the long-term, sustained investments in education they need to succeed. That is why we plan to continue vigorously pursuing Pennsylvania’s fair funding lawsuit before the state Supreme Court in September to ensure that the Commonwealth meets its constitutional requirement to provide a “thorough and efficient” public school system that serves all children regardless of their ZIP code.”

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children experiencing homelessness.

www.elc-pa.org | www.facebook.com/educationlawcenter | www.twitter.com/edlawcenterpa

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Educators more concerned about this year’s budget than new proposals

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal for significant budget increases to public education drew a uniform response from school officials, teacher union leaders and education advocacy groups: The promise of more money next year is meaningless without a working budget this year.

“It’s hard to get happy with numbers if the numbers don’t mean anything,” said David Seropian, business manager for the McKeesport Area School District. “If the numbers come to fruition then we would be pleased.”

Sto-Rox Superintendent Terry DeCarbo said he was “optimistic but skeptical” of the governor’s 2016-17 proposed spending plan.

And North Hills School District Director of Finance and Operations David Hall said he paid no attention to the governor’s proposal on Tuesday because “right now it’s just pie in the sky.”

Mr. Wolf’s education funding proposals are based on the assumption that the framework budget he reached with Senate Republicans in December will be made into law.

That means his proposal assumes the state adds $377 million in the current year to the main funding line for K-12 education. The 2016-17 budget proposal would add another $200 million in the new budget year.

In addition, the governor would add $60 million next year for early childhood education on top of a $60 million increase he hopes for this year and proposes an additional $50 million for special education on top of $50 million he hopes will be enacted in this year’s budget.

The money would be distributed using the fair funding formula created and adopted by the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission in June 2015.

Statements from the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania State Education Association applauded the governor’s proposed funding increases, but urged legislators to work with administration to approve a budget and get funds flowing to the schools.

“This is just unacceptable. It’s nothing short of a crisis and it must be fixed,” said PSEA president Jerry Oleksiak said.

Both McKeesport and Sto-rox have borrowed money to get through this school year as a result of frozen state subsides.

McKeesport borrowed $5 million last fall to meet expenses, a debt that was repaid when districts received about 45 percent of their state funding last month. But the McKeesport board is preparing to take another $3.6 million line of credit next month if a state budget is not approved and the remaining subsidies released.

Sto-Rox is functioning by paying bills from a $7.3 million line of credit it arranged last summer.

“We are $2 million into it and that $2 million is all for the safety of the staff and students, the day-to-day operations, just keeping the lights on. We are standing in place on initiatives and rollouts because we can’t fund it. We are just maintaining,” Mr. DeCarbo said.

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said the lack of adequate state funding is becoming evident in the gap between districts that have financial resources and those that do not.

“We are applauding the governor for sticking to his vision,” Mrs. Hippert said. “But at the same time we as a commonwealth, with the legislators, have to have and share a vision for education and determine what it takes to meet that at some level because we are moving in the wrong direction.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said “we totally appreciate [the governor’s] unwavering resolve to address funding issues in the schools across the Commonwealth” and urged legislators to “resolve this in a way that we can all move ahead.”

“At the end of the day, the kids are still going to school every day. None of us can ever forget that,” Mrs. Hippert said.

Molly Born contributed. Mary Niederberger: [email protected], 412-263-1590. On Twitter @MaryNied.

Wolf warns Chester-Upland schools may not open without drastic interventions

He is proposing a plan that would drastically reduce the amount the district pays for charter special education students.

By Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks and Dale Mezzacappa on Aug 18, 2015 08:10 PM

Without immediate action, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday the Chester Upland School District will not be in a financial position to open its doors next month.

Wolf has a plan to rectify the situation, resting partly on the backs of area charter schools.

Wolf has asked a Delaware County Judge to approve drastic reductions in the payments Chester-Upland sends to charter schools.

Without action, Wolf said Chester Upland’s almost $24 million operating deficit would prevent it from opening in September.

“I, for the life of me, don’t know how you can open financially with what they’s staring at,” said Wolf, in a telephone interview.

Flawed system?

Wolf’s solution hinges on what many education advocates have long considered a flaw in the way the state funds charter schools for special education students.

Under the current system, charters have a financial incentive to enroll students with relatively mild educational disabilities.

It works like this: Districts must give charters whatever the districts spend, on average, on special education.

If a charter enrolls many children with less costly needs, the charter makes out financially.

And then a vicious cycle is created. With fewer mildly disabled students in the district, the district’s average cost climbs, which it then must pay to the charter.

Right now, Chester Upland sends about $40,000 to a charter that enrolls an area special education student, no matter the student’s disability.

The Wolf administration’s official court filing points out that the money sent by Chester-Upland School District to charters for special-ed is “disproportionately higher than any other school district sending students to the same schools.”

“This is patently inequitable,” added the filing.

Wolf wants to implement a new formula in Chester-Upland that would align charter special-education payments nearer to actual costs.

Wolf’s plan is based on the 2013 recommendations of the Legislature’s bipartisan special-education funding commission. It proposed a three-tiered system of funding for special education based on the severity of student need.

Those recommendations were never adopted by the General Assembly.

Under Wolf’s plan, Chester Upland’s special-ed charter bill would drop from $40,000 per student to $16,000 per student – saving the district $21 million.

“The special education issue is something that charter schools and public schools all across the commonwealth are struggling with,” said Wolf. “There’s an inducement to try to categorize more students than maybe should be categorized as special education just because of the way the formula works.”

Overall, Wolf’s proposal would decrease the amount Chester Upland spends on special-education payments to charters from $64.4 million to $39.8 million.

“As with any experiment, you need some tweaking,” Wolf added, of the way charters are funded in Pennsylvania.

Wolf also wants to cap the funding the state’s cybercharters receive for students from Chester Upland to just under $5,980, saving the district another $4 million.

The twofold approach would wipe away the district’s existing deficit, the governor said.

Wolf’s plan also calls for a forensic audit of the district’s finances and the appointment of a new turnaround specialist.

The petition to amend Chester Upland’s recovery plan was submitted by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera and Chester Upland receiver Francis Barnes, a Corbett administration appointee.

Without action, Chester Upland’s deficit will reach $46 million by the end of the school year.

Chester Upland as ‘poster child’

The district was first classified as financially distressed in 1994. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said that from 2003 to 2012, the district overspent $44.4 million.

Over the past five years, the state has sent Chester Upland $74 million in extra, one-time infusions of aid.

“I don’t really care who’s fault it is. Over the last 20-some years, I guess there’s plenty of blame to go around. But, regardless, it’s our problem,” said Wolf. “I thought we needed drastic action in Chester Upland, and this is my best effort at that drastic action.

Wolf’s plan assumes that the General Assembly will approve his bid to raise state education aid by a half-billion dollars. Negotiations over the state budget have dragged on since the fiscal year ended on June 30.

Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp described Chester Upland as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with how Pennsylvania funds special education in charter schools.

He lamented that the recommendations of the special-ed funding commission were still sitting on the shelf.

“Unfortunately, the General Assembly was unwilling to compromise and nothing got fixed. Meanwhile, until the state Legislature complies with their constitutional mandate to provide adequate, equitable, and predictable funding for all students in all schools, we can expect more of these fights over whether to rob Peter or Paul.”

Chester County Community Charter

If approved by the courts, Wolf’s plan for Chester Upland would have a large impact on the level of funding to Chester Community Charter School – the largest brick-and-mortar charter in the state.

Payments to charters account for 46 percent of Chester Upland’s budget, and most of that goes to CCCS. The school has 3,126 students, nearly as many as the 3,300 attending schools in the Chester Upland district.

CCCS is run by the for-profit Charter School Management, Inc., owned by Vahan Gureghian, a prominent Republican in Montgomery and Delaware counties and major donor to political candidates. He was the largest individual campaign contributor to former Gov. Tom Corbett.

CCCS has traditionally enrolled a high proportion of special education students, most of them classified in the less expensive categories. According to the latest report to the state, nearly one in four CCCS students is in special ed – about the same rate as that in the Chester Upland district as a whole, but far above the statewide rate of 15.6 percent.

At CCCS, more than 27 percent of the students are classified as having a “speech and language impairment,” the least expensive disability. That is close to twice the state rate of 15.4 percent and 11 times the Chester Upland rate of 2.4 percent for that category.

By contrast, the CCCS percentage for the more costly categories of autism, emotional disturbance and intellectual disability are far below Chester Upland’s rates.

As the minimally disabled and least expensive special ed students are drained from Chester Upland, the district is left with students with more costly disabilities and its per-pupil spending rises. That then inflates the charter payment for the the next year.

The cost is also driven up because the state assumes that all districts have 16 percent
special education students. In cases like Chester Upland where the special education percentage is higher than 16 percent – at 24 percent, it is 50 percent higher – the total cost is divided by a lower number than it should be.

“They should be dividing by 24 percent,” said the Education Law Center’s Lapp. “If you have more than 16 percent, you get a higher number for the per pupil cost than you should.”

Due to these factors, since 2012, Chester Upland’s payment to charters for each special education student has gone up from $24,528 to $40,170 this year – an increase of 63 percent. Between last year and this, it went up 15 percent, from $34,931 to $40,170.

Charters can spend the money they receive for special education in any way they see fit.

Gureghian has declined to open the books of his management company to public scrutiny, arguing that it is a private business. He has not complied with court rulings on right-to-know requests.

Wolf said his proposal was not pointed at CCCS.

“It’s not. It’s pointed at trying to make sure that the Chester Upland School District is able to open for all kids on time,” said Wolf.

A spokesman for Chester Community Charter School did not return a request for comment, nor did the public relations firm that represents Gureghian.

CCCS was also implicated in allegations of standardized test cheating scandal, when a forensic audit for the 2009 tests found statistically improbable erasures of wrong-to-right answers.

A state investigation into what happened was aborted, and CCCS was allowed to investigate itself. No one connected with the school was ever held accountable, but when strict protocols were imposed, test scores dropped 30 points in each subject in each grade.

Gureghian and his wife, Danielle, were also disclosed to be the major donors to a PAC that gave to former state Treasurer Rob McCord, who resigned and pleaded guilty to extortion charges involving contributions to his failed gubernatorial campaign.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has reported that federal investigators are still probing the conditions under which the contributions were made.

http://thenotebook.org/blog/158874/wolf-warns-chester-upland-schools-may-not-open-without-drastic-interventions

Commentary: State needs a rational fix for its method of funding charter students with disabilities

Dec. 1, 2014 – by David Lapp, Education Law Center – Pennsylvania’s calculation for funding special education in charter schools is broken. In Philadelphia, special education tuition paid by the District to charter schools has doubled from $11,000 per student to over $23,000 per student in just 12 years. During the same period, special education revenue to the District from the state stagnated at under $5,000 per student.

Continue reading

Trying to live up to special-ed law amid the Philly school budget crisis

October 16, 2013 – by Kevin McCorry –

The Philadelphia School District has at least 20,000 evaluated special-needs students. Each year, the district pays millions in legal fees and lawsuit settlements based on its failure, both proven and alleged, to meet their needs. This year, due to budget cuts, the district shed close to 3,000 staff members.

Read the full story:
https://whyy.org/articles/trying-to-live-up-to-special-ed-law-amid-the-philly-school-budget-crisis/  

At symposium, a call for state education funding formula

October 10, 2013 – by Martha Woodall, Inquirer Staff Writer –

If the Pennsylvania Legislature had not scrapped a statewide education-funding formula in 2011 it had approved three years earlier, the Philadelphia School District would have received $360 million more in state aid this year and would not be in a fiscal crisis now, an expert said Wednesday.

Read the full story:
http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20131010_At_symposium__a_call_for_more_state_education_funding.html

 

Pa. advocates gear up for education funding push

October 01, 2013 – by Susan Snyder, Inquirer Staff Writer –

Its music program was eliminated, 12 percent of its teaching force laid off, and its junior high sports program was slashed. “Cuts at the state level just kill us,” said Jim Duffy, superintendent of the Fannett-Metal School District, a small system in south-central Pennsylvania.

Read the full story:
http://articles.philly.com/2013-10-01/news/42539843_1_districts-school-funding-chief-education-officer

PA Enacts Historic Special Education Funding Reforms

June 14, 2013 –  Governor Corbett signed into law today historic legislation to fix Pennsylvania’s broken special education funding and accountability system.

Act 3 establishes a legislative commission to develop — for the first time in the Commonwealth — a funding formula for special education that uses accurate student counts and addresses actual student needs.

Advocates from 40 different organizations throughout Pennsylvania support this legislation, which was nearly adopted in 2012.

“This is historic,” said Rhonda Brownstein, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, one of the lead advocacy groups supporting this legislation. “The commission will outline a much-needed approach for funding special education in Pennsylvania — one that takes into account accurate data and real student needs.”

Rep. Bernie O’Neill and Sen. Pat Browne were lead bill sponsors and will be a part of the commission.

“We want to thank our legislative champions — Representative O’Neill and Senator Browne — for their work on the legislation, and, of course, we want to thank all of our advocates throughout the state for their commitment and dedication to seeing this bill passed,” said Pam Klipa, Special Education & Training Coordinator for The Arc of Pennsylvania.

The Commission established by the legislation will begin work next month and make its recommendations in September. The funding formula established by the Commission would be applied to any new dollars added to the state’s special education line item.

Districts could utilize any new state special education funding to improve programs and supports and other best practices that benefit students with disabilities, such as meeting state and federal performance indicators and providing curricula adaptation, co-teaching, assistive technology, and school-wide positive behavior supports.

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The Education Law Center is a non-profit, statewide legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to a quality public education.

 

CONTACT:
Brett Schaefer
Education Law Center
Office: 215-238-6970 ext. 334
Mobile: 215-519-6522
[email protected]