Senate Majority Policy Committee
Explores Special Education Challenges Facing School Districts
Harrisburg – The Senate Majority
Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Ted Erickson (R-26), held a public hearing
today on the challenges school districts face in meeting state and federal
special education mandates.
Testifiers, including superintendents and education advocates, spoke about
the increase in the number of students needing special education services, the
regulations driving up special education costs and how to address them, and the
inequities in the state special education funding formula.
"Special education costs are borne
by the local school districts and taxpayers, even though the mandates come from
the federal and state government," said Erickson. "The current funding formula
does not provide that state funding is distributed on an equitable basis to
school districts across the state. And the federal funding is inadequate
for the requirements it has placed on our schools."
Among the school districts
testifying was the Upper Darby School District in Delaware County, represented
by Superintendent Louis DeVlieger, Director of Special Education Services Mary
Cedrone, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Daniel McGarry,
and Director of Business Management Edward Smith.
The Committee also heard from
officials from the Lewisburg Area School District in Union County, the North
Allegheny School District in Allegheny County, and the Lower Dauphin School
District in Dauphin County.
Testifiers noted that federal law
requires that school districts take steps to identify every student in need of
special education services or face penalties, and that the increased emphasis on
early childhood education increases the likelihood that children are identified
early. Although the number of students who are identified as in need of special
education services has increased over the past five years, state and federal
special education subsidies have remained flat.
In addition to the increase in the
number of students who must be provided special education services, testifiers
outlined some of the other major cost drivers, including legal fees incurred
before a dispute even gets to a hearing; uncapped tuition fees for required
out-of-district placement of special ed students; and labor costs. For example,
the Upper Darby School District employs 246 full-time and 98 hourly employees to
provide special education services in its schools.
"School districts must provide the
mandated services required for each and every special education student. Failure
to provide the services results in costly litigation, with the plaintiff
oftentimes receiving compensatory education, which equates to real dollars. The
resulting increased cost requires us to make reductions in our regular education
program and propose property tax increases," Upper Darby Director of Business
Management Edward Smith testified.
Senator Erickson said he is
looking forward to hearing concrete suggestions from testifiers about how the
legislature, as well as the federal government, can change or modify regulations
and requirements so that school districts have more flexibility to meet the
needs of their students.
"There are non-monetary steps that
the state can take to help school districts with costs, including reviewing
state special ed class size requirements and assisting with alternative dispute
resolution options that lower legal costs," he said. "The shrinking of mental
health services due to human service funding cuts is also hurting our school
districts, and something that needs to be considered as we enter the process of
passing a state budget."
Video and testimony from the hearing can be viewed on Senator Erickson’s
senatorerickson.com, at the Senate Majority Policy Committee link.