PA’s unfair special education funding for charter schools: Ciresi op/ed

The system in which Pennsylvania pays charter schools for special education is broken. For every special education student who leaves a traditional public school to attend a charter school, their home district is required to reimburse that charter school based on an illogical average cost to educate special education students.

The problem is that in practice, nine times out of ten the true cost is lower than this average, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in overpayments funneled away from the students in our traditional public schools.

This is because there’s a huge range in the costs associated with providing a federally-mandated free and appropriate special education. The costliest students may require services like a full-time aide and specialized transportation that can climb into six figures. Others may only need speech therapy in a group setting once per week – a marginal cost of a few thousand dollars.

In Pennsylvania, 90% of special education students fall into our lowest-cost range of up to $25,000. Of the remaining 10%, 7% cost between $25,000 to $50,000, while 3% are high-cost students requiring services costing $50,000 or more.

So, when we bill school districts on the average costs of all special education students, the tuition amount is driven higher by the few high-cost outliers. To make matters worse, the data shows that charter schools tend to enroll a higher proportion of the lowest cost students (94%) and fewer of the most expensive students (only 1.4%).

Further, we don’t even calculate averages correctly. We falsely assume 16% of a school district’s enrollment needs special education services – an outdated assumption that is another way the tuition amount gets an artificial boost.

We don’t need to use averages. We have the data that represents the true cost of providing these services. In 2014, Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Special Education Funding Commission recommended a simple fix to the glaring unfairness in charter school tuition amounts for special education students. Rather than calculating the average based on all special education students, charter schools should be paid based upon the average cost of the low-, middle-, or high-cost range that the student falls into.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly’s majority has not implemented this bipartisan, fair, and commonsense recommendation, and they have even barred the reconstituted Special Education Funding Commission from making further recommendations on the issue.

To be clear, special education students have an absolute right to all the services, in inclusive settings, that will help them reach their full potential. Property taxpayers have shouldered too much of the responsibility for paying for these rising costs. It’s time for the state to step up by substantially increasing our state subsidy for special education and fixing the charter tuition formula to ease school districts’ strained budgets.

Gov. Wolf’s 2021/22 budget proposal does just this by calling for a $200 million increase for special education funding while advocating for charter school funding reform that would save school districts $229 million annually. Let’s begin the 2021-22 legislative session in a productive and bipartisan fashion by enacting the overdue charter tuition formula reform in House Bill 272.