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March 25, 2023 5:38 pm

Local News

School Districts Struggle with Rising Special Education Costs Amid a Lack of Funding from the State

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Anzhe Zhang 

School districts in Pennsylvania, particularly low-income ones, are facing the burden of rising special education costs and seeing little support from state funding, according to a recent study conducted by the Education Law Center and PA Schools Work, a set of education advocacy groups based in the state.

According to the groups’ study, from 2008-09 to 2019-20, special education costs in public schools grew by $2.2 billion to nearly $5.2 billion in total, outpacing state funding which grew by only $156 million during that same period.

School districts have had to rely on local property taxes in absence of adequate funding from the state, effectively creating a tiered education system in which wealthier school districts have a significant advantage over poorer ones when it comes to providing for special education costs.

These resource disparities have only been heightened by the pandemic, which has increased costs for school districts – particularly ones in low-income urban, rural, and suburban districts, while causing local tax revenues to drop.

The report claims “these gaps in basic education funding also impact students with disabilities, who spend much or all their time in inclusive classrooms with high student-teacher ratios, outdated books, and antiquated buildings,” noting that the state’s current education funding appropriation turns a blind eye towards the specific needs of different communities.

A Penn State analysis concluded that the gap revenue between the wealthiest school districts and the poorest school districts was more than $4,800 per student, while the student market value, an indicator of how affluent a local district is, ranged from just $74,264 in Reading School District to $1,482,228 in New Hope-Solebury.

The study stresses that the impact of “state negligence on resources available for students” is disproportionately greater on low-income districts that have to increase property tax millage rates while “homeowners and renters bear the brunt of these taxes.” 

State funding currently covers for only 22 percent of special education expenses in Pennsylvania, with the state’s share in broader education expenditures being at 38 percent, ranking Pennsylvania 45th in the nation.

307,644 students in Pennsylvania received special education services in the 2019-20 school year, a 14 percent rise from 2008-09.

Meanwhile, as plaintiffs wait for the court decision in the state’s landmark education funding trial, the advocacy groups behind the study urged the General Assembly to increase the state’s share of special education funding from one in five dollars to one in three dollars, while adding $200 million towards special education funding for 2022-23. They also stressed the importance of Gov. Tom Wolf’s $1.55 billion education funding proposal and closing the special education charter school funding loophole.