School districts across the country are facing budget shortfalls requiring them to make drastic cuts and changes to every program not deemed essential, and Philadelphia is no exception. With the closure of 24 district schools last year and the loss of 3,000 staff jobs, the Philadelphia school district is trying desperately to keep its head above water. One area where the Philadelphia public school system has always struggled and continues to do so is in providing quality and legally-appropriate special education, and the budget constraints are only making it worse.
Educating students with special needs is considerably more expensive than educating more traditional ones, and increasingly, schools around the country are failing to do so properly. While research shows qualified special education teachers improve skill sets and knowledge bases for special needs students, thereby reducing the financial burden of the state down the road, school districts — especially Philadelphia schools — have consistently had a difficult time finding the money and resources necessary to educate their special needs students appropriately and legally.
The Individuals with Disabilities Act, also known as IDEA, is a federal law passed in the 1970s and aims to ensure children with disabilities have their needs met across the nation. It mandates that public schools must provide a free and appropriate education to every student within every public school district diagnosed with disability. Schools are also required to identify any students who may exhibit learning disabilities and develop an education plan tailored appropriately to the child — at no extra cost to parents. Many school districts feel IDEA has saddled them with too great a responsibility and too few resources to accomplish it. It is a good idea, but it is underfunded. In Philadelphia school districts alone, upwards of 20,000 students have diagnosed special needs or learning disabilities, and the district is legally responsible to not only accommodate them but educate them as well, and because special needs education costs are more than double traditional student costs, avoiding the extra expense can become a strategy to meet budget requirements.
Many school administrators claim the educational strictures of IDEA are too cumbersome and impractical to carry out, but each special needs student’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, must be met. Once it’s written, an IEP becomes a legally binding contract, and if it is violated, the district is breaking the law, which opens the door for parents and caregivers to sue. It’s a risk many school districts are willing to take — often to the tune of millions of dollars in legal expenses, court fees, settlements and more. Each year, Philadelphia school districts battle parents in and out of court over IDEA and millions of dollars are spent in the process. While schools close and staff are let go, it’s hard not to wonder just how much worse the budget crisis is going to make meeting IDEA’s requirements — and how much more money the district will lose. Last year, Philadelphia schools budgeted over $6 million for losses and judgments regarding special education. They spent almost $9 million. With so much at stake, a real budget crisis and so many special needs students falling through the cracks, what can Philadelphia do to provide the education it is legally required to provide to all of its students?
Efforts and Aims
Thankfully, it looks like some relief may be finally on the way. Last year, Governor Corbett signed a bill into law establishing a source of funding for special education across the state of Pennsylvania. Called Act 3, it was years in the making and had the support of 39 different advocacy organizations and The Education Law Center. Act 3 is primarily a law about funding distribution, and it has three cost categories to monetize each student’s educational needs and will hopefully ensure school districts across the state will have enough funding to keep them in compliance with IDEA and provide an appropriate education for each special needs student.
Whether or not the latest efforts undertaken by the state of Pennsylvania will be enough to fix the broken special education system in Philadelphia remains to be seen, but at the very least, there are steps being taken — and they seem to be headed in the right direction.
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