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PA: Districts see $1.54B SPED cost increase...because of greater awareness

Oct 24, 2018, NPR Pittsburg: Skyrocketing Special Ed. Costs Falling Heavily On Pa. School Districts, Taxpayers Special education costs are rising much faster in Pennsylvania than state aid — causing local taxpayers to foot most of the bill, while also stretching school budgets thin and increasing inequities between rich and poor districts, according to a new report by a duo of advocacy groups. The Education Law Center and PA Schools Work found that for every new dollar Harrisburg spent on special education between 2008 and 2016, school districts spent $20. During that time, districts saw their special education costs rise $1.54 billion while the state chipped in just $71 million. … So, from the perspective of child advocates, this latest data may suggest some improvement: either because districts are doing a better job providing services or because families are doing a better job requesting them. “Some of the increases I think we’re seeing are a natural consequence of trying to meet the need for services that was previously being unmet,” said Brown Staley. ‘Insolvent’ Those increases, though, have fallen disproportionately on the backs of local school districts. In 2008, districts covered 62.1 percent of all special education costs, the state picked up 32.3 percent of the tab, and the federal government covered the rest. By 2016, the latest year for which data was available, the local share had shot up to 71.5 percent and the state portion had fallen to 23 percent. … Districts have to lean on local taxpayers to keep pace with this trend, Brown Staley said. And advocates worry less wealthy school districts will be forced to cut other services…. “In the near future, we’re going to be OK,” said Murray. “[But] five, six years from now we’re going to be insolvent where we can’t pay our bills.”… A decades-old federal law requires schools provide a “free and appropriate public education” for students with special needs, regardless of cost. The burden for meeting this mandate falls increasingly on state and local governments. From 2009 to 2015, the overall share of special education funding provided by the federal government fell from 33 percent to 16 percent, according to one study. … That doesn’t, however, mean this is an exclusively suburban phenomenon. Special education costs are rising fastest in a wide array of school districts, touching every corner of the state. Carbondale Area School District in Lackawanna County saw expenses rise a staggering 211% over the eight-year period studied. And the local share dedicated to special education spiked from 44 percent of all costs to 80 percent. Rural school districts such as Galeton Area in Potter County, Homer-Center in Indiana County, and Cameron County also saw costs more-than double. In Philadelphia, expenses rose 97 percent…. The state reformed its system for distributing special education dollars before the 2014-15 school year. Lawmakers felt then that the old method disincentivized districts from identifying special education students. Prior to the change, the state assumed special education students made up about 15 percent of all students in each district — and didn’t award extra money to districts with a special education population higher than that rate…. Maureen Cronin, executive director of the Arc of Pennsylvania, a disabilities-rights group, believes the state should spend more on special education because it will ultimately alleviate the burden on social service programs run by the state….

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