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PA: "Skyrocketing" SPED costs; feds aren't paying

Oct 9, 2018, PBS, WSKG, Vestal, NY: 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 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…. The Iroquois School District, just outside Erie, … The district’s special education expenses rose 50 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to the new report, and the district picked up nearly all of that increase. In 2008, Iroquois taxpayers covered 31 percent of the district’s special education costs. By 2016, that number was up to 65 percent. To compensate for that — as well rising pension and healthcare costs — the district eliminated some high school electives, dug into its fund balance, and raised taxes seven years in a row. “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 cross-state trend 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. Pennsylvania isn’t the only state where school districts appear to be shouldering more of the load. California has experienced a similar phenomenon. A decade ago, according to one report, California and the federal government combined to provide more than half of all special education funding in the nation’s most populous state. Today that number is down to 38 percent….

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