Senate Majority Policy Committee Explores Special Education Challenges Facing School Districts

For Immediate Release

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.”

NOTE: Video and testimony from the hearing can be viewed on Senator Erickson’s website,, at the Senate Majority Policy Committee link.


Michele Hansarick