Tiers of Funding for Special Education Students in Charter Schools?

by Paul O'Neill

When serving students with disabilities in charter schools, there is no shortage of consistently challenging issues to contend with.  One of the trickiest is how to fund it.  In some states, like Pennsylvania, charter schools receive a flat payment of state and local funds for each student with disabilities.  That figure is roughly double the funding a Pennsylvania charter school receives for a student without disabilities.  In New York, there is a three-tiered formula for funding special education in charter schools.  Charters there get some additional funds for students who receive limited services, more funds for those students in need of moderate services, and the highest amount of additional funds for the relatively few students enrolled in a charter school who need costly services for most or all of the school day. Recently, Pennsylvania is taking steps to be more like New York.  In 2013, a statewide commission charged with studying public school funding recommended that the state adopt a weighted, three-tiered structure that looks much like the New York one, and there are now bills in the state Senate and House that call for implementing this structure.

Is a tiered funding structure more fair?  It seems to make intuitive sense that funding should track the needs of the student, and that a one size fits all allocation for special education funds fails to account for the considerable variety in the severity, needs and costs involved for each student.  But charter advocates warn that the current Pennsylvania bills go too far in the other direction by slashing special education funding for charter schools much more severely than would be the case for a district school.  It may be a question of implementation – the current bills may be inequitable in how they seek to adjust the funding formula.   

Proponents of a tiered funding formula -- that is more reflective of individual students --  also maintain that it would limit the incentive for charter schools to over-identify students with disabilities in order to receive the considerable additional funds that come with such a designation.  This may be true to a degree, but as a former authorizer in New York, I can attest that even a tiered funding structure can be manipulated.  Dishonest administrators could simply exaggerate the severity of a student’s disabilities in order to seek a higher tier of funding.

The goals here seem clear enough:  Tailoring special education funding to student need is fair and appropriate.  But achieving that goal is challenging, and has been approached in a range of ways by the 42 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have charter school legislation. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools is about to begin the first of two analyses of these state funding mechanisms.  Once we know more about the details of how each state approaches this challenge, we hope to be able to identify best practices and foster more equity for the many districts, charter schools and students involved.