New special ed funding formula hurts charter schools, advocates say.
April 10, 2014
By Christen Smith
HARRISBURG (April 9) — The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools say new special education funding formula proposals punish charter schools with reduced funding.
In some districts, such as Philadelphia, charter schools with special education students could receive less than half of the money the school district would receive for instructing those same students.
“This is not an issue of charters versus traditional schools,” said Ken Kilpatrick, director of public relations for the coalition. “It’s about potentially inequitable treatment of children with special education needs based not on the challenges they face, but on type of public school they have chosen to attend.”
The legislation, Senate Bill 1316 and its companion, House Bill 2138, would scrap the state’s current formula that assumes 16 percent of students in each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts require special education services. In its place, the bills’ prime sponsors, Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh and Rep. Bernie O’Neill, R-Bucks, propose a formula that weighs factors including student needs, poverty, property tax levels and “rural and small district conditions.”
The formula would only apply to additional funding given to school districts above the 2010-11 levels and, in the case of charter schools only, ties the allocation to the basic education funding formula.
“The result is a formula that is based, not on need, but rather on the type of school the child attends and provides as estimated 30 to 60 percent less funding for every special education student in a charter school than in a traditional public school,” Coalition Executive Director Bob Fayfich wrote in an April 4 letter addressed to all of its member schools.
Lawmakers say the weighted variables better address the individual needs of each district when compared to the state’s current formula.
Senate Education Committee Republican Chairman Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, acknowledged the formula’s imperfections Wednesday.
“No one is going to love it and no one is going to hate it,” he said. “We tried to, in a bipartisan way, come up with a fair formula.”
Mike Griffith, School Finance Consultant for the Education Commission of the States, called the Legislatures’ proposals a “good step forward,” but wondered how the fluctuating weights in the formula could impact school districts’ budgets.
“Where the lack of the predictably will be is with additional funding,” he said. “It might be a situation where the Department of Education doesn’t change them each year, but just has the ability to do so. It’s just unusual.”
The Special Education Funding Commission, on which Browne and O’Neill served as co-chairs, recommended the new formula in a Dec. 11 report that considered testimony from 53 witnesses, including Griffith, at seven hearings last summer.
“I got the feeling that the commission was non-partisan,” Griffith said. “You couldn’t identify who was Democrat or Republican, which was sort of refreshing. It seemed that everyone there was trying their best to come up with a solution.”
Griffith said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Legislature drafted an additional bill within the next year to adjust the new formula.
“I think it’s important for the public to know that this has overwhelming support in all chambers,” O’Neill said Wednesday, just hours after announcing his House companion bill. “The idea is to get it moving. It has a swell of support from everyone — the House, the Senate and the administration.”
Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, confirmed Wednesday that the governor’s administration supports the findings released in the commission’s report and “is working with the General Assembly to put into place a new special education funding formula that allocates new dollars to schools based on categories of student disabilities.”
O’Neill says he will “probably” suggest moving forward with the Senate version of the bill.
“They (the bills) are identical and I don’t even think either legislature cares,” Folmer said. “As long as one gets to the governor’s desk.”
In the meantime, O’Neill has turned his focus towards the basic education funding formula with House Bill 1738, which would create a Basic Education Funding Commission to address fiscal concerns just as its special education counterpart did last year.
The bill joined SB 1316 in the Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday.
Kilpatrick said the coalition would be willing to testify before this commission, too, and “expects to be invited to do so.”
“We have no problem with establishing a commission,” he said. “However, the order is out of sync. Basic education funding should first be studied before special education funding.”
Folmer said he wants to move the bill quickly and started on the “daunting, but necessary” task of rehashing the basic education formula. Eller said the Corbett administration supports the measure, too.
Griffith, who says he worked with Illinois and Rhode Island in reforming their own basic education funding formulas, cautioned state lawmakers not to “run the numbers until each of the issues have been worked out.”
“It becomes trickier because you have more moving parts,” he said. “When you start talking about the other issues involved … it varies greatly. Rural school districts have higher transportation costs for kids, while as suburban districts, not so much. People will say they want to move money around to protect their districts and that’s where the problems start.”