There's nothing "special" about the skyrocketing cost of special education, according to a new report.
The local share of money designated to special education in school districts has continued to rise while state funding has decreased, creating “increasingly inequitable” learning environments across the Commonwealth, according to the Education Law Center.
A report released on Oct. 9 by the Philadelphia-based firm says children with disabilities are being shortchanged due to underfunding by the state for special education programs. Taking a look at school district and state contributions to special education for school years from 2008-09 to 2016-17, the ELC says the state’s portion has dropped from one-third to less than one-quarter in that timeframe.
In the meantime, 83 percent of school districts have had their own share of expenditures increase, with 53 districts reporting increases of 20 percentage points or more.
“Pennsylvania’s growing reliance on locally designated funding to provide needed services for students with disabilities is unsustainable,” read a portion of the report. “It forces local school boards to choose between raising additional revenue to meet funding gaps, spreading limited resources across a range of programs, and/or reducing needed services and supports for students with disabilities. It exposes families to local tax increases and service cuts.”
In Delaware County, Upper Darby School District has had their expenditures for special education more than double in the studied timeframe, from approximately $20 million to $41.8 million. As a percentage, the district’s share has increased from 57 to 77 percent.
“The rising costs of special education services over the years is mainly attributed to the increase in the number of students served, with just over 1,500 students serviced as of March 2009 to just over 2,500 students served at the end of the 2017-2018 school year,” said Upper Darby Acting Assistant Superintendent Edward Marshaleck. “In addition, the cost of services, tuition, legal fees and settlement costs have risen over the years to reflect the level of the specific services or resources and the cost of the provider.”
On the opposite end of the county, Garnet Valley has had their special education expenses almost double. Additionally, they are tied with Haverford for being the county school district that contributes the most money to special education at 86 percent.
Garnet Valley Superintendent Marc Bertrando said special education accounts for approximately 20 percent of the district’s budget, and that while the expenses have increased by triple-digit percentages, the state and federal IDEA subsidies have only increased 23 and 17 percent, respectively. The state and federal money was covering 28 percent of the district’s costs but is now down to 14 percent as of 2016-17.
“The federal government needs to make good on its promise to fund IDEA (the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), especially as the rate of mandated provisions, compliance regulations, and litigation continue to rise,” said Bertrando. “When IDEA was enacted, the government promised to subsidize 40 percent of the costs to educate special education students. Unfortunately, we receive less than 4.9 percent.
“Consequently, federal and state funding allocations need to increase particularly for students who have low incidence disabilities and cost districts extraordinary amounts of money.”
The Arc of Pennsylvania Executive Director Maureen Cronin said the intent of special education funding was not to have it be done district by district due to variances among them all.
“It really is a federal and state program with the investments of local tax funds, but not a large majority of it (investments) going to local school districts,” she said.
The Arc is the organization that successfully sued the state back in the early 1970s to establish a free public education for children with mental retardation, and, come present day, for all children with disabilities. Congress passed a law in 1975 ensuring such an education, eventually leading to what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Even with legislation ensuring that special education students get free education like their basic education peers, the state hasn’t been keeping up with the costs.
The ELC’s report says that a district’s share has increased from 62 to 71 percent, while the state’s share has decreased from 32 to 23 percent. State contributions have increased just $72 million to $1 billion total in the report’s surveyed timeframe. At the same time, expenditures for special education services have increased from $3 to $4.5 billion
Federal fund contributions to districts budgets have stayed stagnant at over 5 percent.
Here is how county districts' special education expenditures have increased from 2009 to 2017 and their respective decreases in state share percentages per the ELC report: Chester-Upland, $23.2 to $38.3 million, 22-15 percent; Chichester, $9 to $13.3 million, 23-17 percent; Garnet Valley,$9.8 to $19.3 million, 15-9 percent; Haverford, $15.3 to $23.3 million, 15-10 percent; Interboro, $8.6 to $10.7 million, 23-20 percent;
Marple Newtown, $11 to $14.6 million, 14-12 percent; Penn-Delco, $7.5 to $9.1 million, 24-21 percent; Radnor, $11.1 to $15.3 million, 23-19 percent; Ridley, $12.1 to $17.4 million, 23-19 percent; Rose Tree Media, $10.2 to $13.5 million, 18-14 percent;
Southeast Delco, $11 to $16.2 million, 20-16 percent; Springfield, $7.3 to $12.6 million, 21-13 percent; Upper Darby, $20 to $41.8 million, 35-18 percent; Wallingford-Swarthmore, $10 to $12.8 million, 19-16 percent; and William Penn, $13.3 to $21.9 million, 29-20 percent.
Cronin says the state’s contribution should be proportionate because districts don’t get money back for providing special education services; the state does when schools develop more independent persons who don’t have to rely so much on social services like Medicaid when they finish school.
“The adult systems benefit by the savings, so the state should be paying a larger share because of that,” she said.
It is because of a lack of state contributions, says Cronin, that it appears that special education costs are “ballooning” for district.
“You have people walking away thinking that it’s a drain on their system, when in fact it really isn’t a drain,” she said. “If it’s done well, the whole community benefits.”
Needs of students drive the costs, said Springfield School District’s Director of Special Education Kristin Nash.
“If a person has more needs, it will cost more because of the increase in services needed to meet those needs,” she said. “We need to continue to collaborate with state legislation and advocate for the necessary funding to meet this legal mandate and ethical responsibility.”
Out-of-district placement, 1:1 paraprofessional support, transportation, contracts for behavior and mental health services are some of the common costs attached to educating a special needs child in a district, not to mention the legal costs for litigation matters.
“The simple answer is that special education is highly mandated, regulated, and litigated, so more students equate to more costs,” said Garnet Valley’s Bertrando.
Upper Darby’s Marshaleck also made note about everything his district has to comply with in serving thousands of special education students.
“The Upper Darby School District strictly follows the Federal and State laws governing special education and provides the proper supports and services to all students who have such a need, including state mandates for caseloads requirements which results in the need for more staff,” he said. “All of the supports and services come with a substantial cost, especially with a diverse and large population of students with needs that are often unique and complicated.”
Education funding for public schools by the state has generally trended toward, so districts aren’t just hurting with special education expenses. The Pennsylvania School Board Association reports that the state’s share of basic education funding has fallen from approximately 50 percent in the 1970s to 22 percent at present day. Special education funding has also dipped from the state, even since 2008-09 to 32.3 to 23 percent.
“The state has both a moral and legal obligation to better educate and support children with disabilities. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a state education agency has an obligation — independent of the local district — to ensure a fair and appropriate education (FAPE) for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment,” reads the end of the ELC report. “This obligation involves ensuring that school districts and other local educational agencies comply with state and federal requirements applicable to children with disabilities.
“Students with disabilities are entitled to an education that is specially designed to meet their needs, modifies instruction and materials, and provides the necessary related supplemental aids and services to accommodate their unique learning needs in the most integrated setting — independent of how much those supports and services cost.”