DN Editorial: State's special-ed funding needs Harrisburg overhaul

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Gov. Wolf MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

LET'S BEGIN BY saying we agree with Gov. Wolf's belief that the way the state funds special education for students in charter schools is messed up.

The formula used isn't related to actual cost. A school is given the same amount whether the child has a mild disability - say, requiring speech therapy three times a week - or is severely handicapped - a wheelchair-bound child who requires special transportation and the presence of a full-time aide.

Local school districts, which have to foot the bill for special-ed students in charters, say the cost of paying this subsidy to charters imperils their own financial stability.

A case in point is the beleaguered Chester-Upland School District, where half of the district's 7,000 students are enrolled in charters. It costs the district $64 million a year in tuition payments for the 3,500 students in local charters - and the special-education students among them get subsidized at double the rate of regular students. It comes to $40,000 per special-ed student.

Once the charter subsidies are paid, the district says it doesn't have enough money to run its own schools and recently threatened to shut down due to lack of funds.

The governor tried to come to the rescue of the district by having the state file suit in Delaware County Court, asking a judge to approve a $24 million cut in the district's subsidy to charters. Local charter schools opposed the attempt, some saying they would have to shut down without adequate subsidies.

Last week, Judge Chad Kenney ruled against the state, saying it did not have the power to change the formula for reimbursement for one district, even one that is under severe financial distress.

The judge said, in effect, that this was not an issue for the courts to decide, but a matter for the executive and legislative branches to work out.

The judge was right. If you want to change the formula, change the law that governs it - and that is a matter for Harrisburg to hash out. It shouldn't be done on a case by case basis.

We also understand the governor's frustration. It's one thing to be told to work the issue out with the Legislature. It's another matter entirely to get it done. With an ongoing stalemate over the fundamentals of government - the budget and taxes - the special-education funding issue gets pushed down the "to do" list.

It could be done as part of an overall review the state's charter law, but that is a political minefield. ( A bill to create a special commission to examine the law has passed the state House and is in the Senate, with no action in sight.)

There could be a tiered reimbursement for special-education costs, depending on the needs of the child. The state implemented such a system two years ago, but applied it only to new funds made available for special education (about $20 million last year).

That leaves the nearly $1 billion the state pays for special ed - for charters and district schools - doled out under the old formula.

Clearly, something must be done to bring equity and fairness to the system. But, as Gov. Wolf learned last week, he won't get it through the side door of courts. He'll have to tackle the issue head on in Harrisburg.