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PublicSource is introducing “By The Book: PGH K-12 Bulletins,” which provides updates on emerging and ever changing news in the Pittsburgh K-12 education landscape. With more than 40 school districts across Allegheny County, the Bulletins will update you on the region’s latest education news, including close coverage of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, other Allegheny County school districts, the Pennsylvania Department of Education and other important agencies, which serve thousands of Pittsburgh families. Please check back frequently and email tylisa@publicsource.org with questions, tips or Bulletin ideas. 

12/11/20: Advocates call out a lack of state special ed funding in PA as costs skyrocket

Costs to educate Pennsylvania’s students with disabilities keep climbing. In the last ten years, these costs across the state grew by $2 billion. Yet, school advocates say that for a decade state funding towards special education has fallen short, leaving school districts to carry the burden of seeking alternative ways to fund the rising costs. 

Advocates say students with disabilities are being “shortchanged.”

For the third year, they are calling out the state for its lack of funding toward special education – and the effect on local school districts, some of which have already been struggling financially. 

In a joint December report, the Education Law Center [ELC] and the statewide PA Schools Work campaign said that while expenditures for special education were boosted by $254 million in the 2018-2019 school year, the state “chipped in just a $15 million increase toward” the heightened cost. 

“For yet another year, Pennsylvania retreated from its responsibility to educate students with disabilities,” the report said. 

“The General Assembly must make an increased state investment in special education as well as basic education. Without a plan for comprehensive state action, issues of inadequacy and inequity will continue to deepen for students with disabilities across the Commonwealth.”

PublicSource spoke with Attorney Cheryl Kleiman at the ELC about report takeaways, context amid COVID and potential solutions.

Screenshot of Education Law Center chart on Special Education Funding by PA School District

THE CHALLENGE

For the ELC, raising awareness around the state’s failure to fund special education “at an amount that allows schools to meet the needs of students with disabilities,” is nothing new. The group has advocated for years for increases in special education funding.

But this year is different. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kleiman said she and advocates have “major concerns going into a state budgetary and financial crisis.”

THE CONTEXT

Related stories

Student needs keep rising. 

ELC advocacy has been “an ongoing drumbeat on behalf of students and families saying even before COVID the needs that students with disabilities have in school are, in many cases, not being met. And the state’s failure to sufficiently fund special education is a major contributor of that,” Kleiman said.

Though the state increased special education in 2019-2020 by $50 million — more than in recent history — still, Kleiman said “it simply isn’t enough when costs are going up $200 million and $250 million per year.” 

Amid conversations about opportunity gaps and longstanding inequities in educational outcomes in Pittsburgh Public Schools, “for students that have been historically the least served by public education, we have every reason to believe that those outcomes and those education needs are rising during COVID and yet the resources that are being devoted this year were simply flat funded,” Kleiman said. 

THE TAKEAWAYS

From the report:

– Statewide special education costs are growing by $200-250 million each year.

– The state’s slice of special education funding declined sharply in the last decade. Between 2008-09 and 2018-19, the share of costs covered by state special education funding narrowed from 32% to 22%.

– For Pittsburgh Public Schools, special education costs rose by about $22 million, a 27% increase over ten years. Other districts in Allegheny County saw sharper cost increases, some by more than 80%, such as Woodland Hills, which saw cost growth of 98% over a decade. 

From Kleiman:

– “When we’re talking about students with special education, and we’re thinking about that through this broader context of how Pennsylvania funds our public schools, we know that Black and Latinx students with disabilities who are concentrated in some of the most underfunded districts in the state are also hardest hit by underfunding of special education.”

– “Even though the law says that a school could not consider the cost of a child’s accommodations for support when developing their individualized education program, when developing the provision of their special education, we know, of course, that those costs do impact the education a child receives and that students that are in underfunded school districts are paying the price for that.”

A SOLUTION

Increased funding — for special education and public education broadly — and soon. 

“We have advocated for many years for an annual increase of $100 million or more over multiple years for special education funding,” Kleiman said. “And that would drive more money to the districts and the students that are most underfunded. … If we’re investing in supports for students at the school district and the state level, we’re going to see better education outcomes.”

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12/10/20: Q&A: A chance to change – One PA advocate on what PPS should fund instead of school police in 2021 budget

The summer months were awash with protests; thousands took to the streets demanding changes in accountability and transparency around policing. The call to remove police from schools intensified in Pittsburgh and beyond. 

Local advocates saw a victory in September when the Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] board unanimously approved a resolution requiring the district to publish student arrest, citation and referral data, in an effort to increase accountability and transparency regarding student interactions with school police.

But the work didn’t stop there. 

Just weeks before the new year, advocates have renewed and heightened calls for PPS to divest resources from school police and invest in alternative restorative support services for students, such as hiring counselors and social workers, in response to a proposed spending increase on school safety. The latest budget, up for a board vote on Dec. 16, allocates $7,422,796 on school safety – a $127,805 increase over last year – including salaries for school police officers and security guards.

Angel Gober, the Western Pennsylvania director of One Pennsylvania, an education advocacy group, spoke with PublicSource about why PPS should divest from school police in the upcoming budget and what’s at stake for PPS students as the upcoming budget looms. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation:

Q: What are your or OnePA’s concerns about the upcoming, proposed budget for Pittsburgh Public Schools?

A: Just like other cities that have been experiencing horrible outcomes from the pandemic, specifically around funding and economics, from people losing their jobs to budgets shrinking and just thinking about next year. Last year, we did pretty much similar recommendations around divesting from public safety budgets to investing in education services. [Our] recommendations actually haven’t changed that much. But I’m really just worried about, I guess, what we would maybe call COVID cuts, that we’re actually going to see less funding for education from the state. That means that local budgets kind of have to adjust to that. 

And I just want the administration and the board to be clear: We cannot take away key positions, like paraprofessionals and teachers and counselors and social workers and nurses and we’re still funding the school safety budget, which is about seven million dollars with a proposed increase for next year. And we still have the highest arrests for Black girls in the state. So to me, it’s like a math problem. If we’re going to be facing cuts in the future then we shouldn’t be investing into systems that overpolice or criminalize students. And I know our operating budget for the school district is about over $600 million and we only spend about $7 million on school safety. But that’s still a lot of money that could pay for different supports and services. 

Q: You mentioned the idea of ‘COVID cuts.’ With so many critical things pulling at the budget – COVID response, increased charter spending, special education funding – can you make the case for why these divestments in policing are critical in this moment and have to happen now? 

A: If we’re even going to consider thinking about how do we save public education, we have to be progressive and innovative in how we think about educating students and not putting so much support and energy into just underlying racism and pushing kids into the school-to-prison pipeline and not having a system that’s based on love. Every year we talk about this, every year we talk about school pushout. And every year we talk about students not getting what they need however they show up at school. And so I just feel like every year it gets more critical that we have to create a better education system that embraces all students regardless of however they show up. And we shouldn’t be meeting them with these harsh policies around kids making mistakes. … We can’t continue to maneuver in that way. We can’t continue to say that we are here to show up for all kids but the most vulnerable kids don’t ever get what they need. We still have a homeless population within the city of Pittsburgh. We still have kids with special needs that are not getting the services that they need when they show up to school. But yet they’re met with:‘We don’t have that for you, so we’re just going to push you to the side and remove you from your education.’ We can’t continue to do that if we actually want to make a difference for Black people in this town. 

12/10/20: 5 Takeaways from the Controller audit on PPS devices, distribution

For months, questions swirled about Pittsburgh Public Schools’ [PPS] transition to technology for its students, after the district missed its own deadlines for becoming 1:1 due to technology shipment delays. So much so, that the school board requested an audit of the district’s device and distribution plan. In November, three months later, the Office of City Controller released an audit of the district’s device distribution plan. The district set a goal in the summer to achieve 1:1, where each student has their own district device, by the return to school.

Spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said Wednesday that since the audit was published, the district has received all its device orders, including the final 6,000 laptop shipment needed to ensure each teacher and student have a device, which arrived the first week of December.

The audit takes a deep look at how PPS approached device purchasing and distribution and its journey toward becoming a 1:1 district. 

Key takeaways:

  • The district reported 21,784 students enrolled in PPS and 1,921 teachers with rostered students as of Sept. 18, for a total of 23,705 — the total number of devices needed for the district to ensure each person has a device, or go 1:1.
  • The total cost for PPS to purchase devices was $10,798,042, including warranties and accessories. Auditors found that as of Oct. 29, the state had not reimbursed the district for $6,938,418.26 in device order expenses.
  • Technology device orders were delayed for multiple reasons. The district attributed initial device order delays to the “uncertainty of the amount of CARES Act funding” it would receive. A 7,000 device delivery was significantly delayed “due to human rights violations in the factory where they were being manufactured,” the report said. “As a result, U.S. customs rejected the shipments and sent them back to China. Lenovo informed administrators that those laptops would have to be manufactured in a different factory, delaying the order until at least November…”
  • The first technology purchase approved by the Pittsburgh School Board was on May 14 for 7,000 Chromebooks, nearly two months after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act was signed into law. 
  • Auditors found that 1.55% or about 336 of all students were absent from both teacher attendance records and online student logins on Schoology. “It is possible that some of these students may have left the district, but ultimately the reason for their absence remains unknown,” the report said.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

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