A recent report published by the Education Law Center finds that local school districts across Pennsylvania are shouldering the weight of rising costs associated with special education.
As the executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, an organization that holds elected officials accountable to support public education, I was appalled to see the breakdown of how little our state leaders have contributed to the growing costs of special education in Cumberland County and across Pennsylvania.
Despite the positive reforms that came out of the 2013 Special Education Funding Commission — adopting a more equitable formula and resuming annual increases in state aid to special education — these changes are too little, too late.
The numbers in the report tell a staggering story of state neglect.
The Cumberland Valley and Big Spring school districts were cited in the report because of the state’s paltry contribution. In Cumberland Valley, from 2008 to 2016, expenses for special education increased by more than $6.7 million. The state kicked in an additional $113,787, while taxpayers in the Cumberland Valley School District were left to come up with a whopping $6.5 million.
Similarly, in Big Spring, the cost of special education went up by more than $3 million. The state increased its contribution by only $114,729, leaving Big Spring scrambling to find $2.9 million in local tax dollars.
On a statewide level, local districts had to come up with $20 for every added dollar that the state provided to cover the increasing cost of special education.
This is a recipe for growing inequality.
While wealthier districts are able to make up for the shortfall in state contribution, poorer districts struggle to help their students with disabilities reach their highest potential. This is especially concerning since a 2009 costing-out study cited a significant gap between what special education students needed to succeed, and the actual funding they received. As the ELC report noted, special education funding is more inadequate and more inequitable than ever. The state’s decision to contribute less than its fair share is a decision to shortchange these students out of the free and appropriate public education required by law.
This is personal to me.
As a former public school teacher, I know firsthand that giving students with disabilities access to the right resources makes a world of difference. I saw my special education students thrive, both socially and academically, when they were given individualized instruction that met their unique needs. In these kinds of educational settings, students go from shy to confident, from apprehensive to accomplished.
We all benefit when our investments enable schools to help students with disabilities reach their potential and prepare them for productive lives. The right supports and resources help students graduate ready for further education or employment in our communities. Students who don’t receive the support they need are at risk of dropping out of school or graduating less prepared to live fulfilling independent lives where they are employed and productive.
Students only graduate ready for success when schools have the right resources. And resources come with a price tag.
Over the past eight years, Cumberland County school districts have repeatedly had to raise property taxes. Much of the new funding raised at the local level has been invested in providing necessary and legally required services for students with disabilities.
Local property taxes in Cumberland County and elsewhere will continue to go up as long as state lawmakers aren’t properly funding special education. When the state doesn’t pay its share, local communities have to make up the difference.
Given the findings from the ELC report, the legislature’s Special Education Funding Commission has an important task before them: to reassess the state’s education funding system and hold state legislators accountable for supporting budgets that fairly contribute the state’s portion to the rising costs of special education.