By Nasharie Stewart
Every student deserves access to a high-quality education. This is a familiar mantra, but we rarely see this principle implemented in low-income school districts because they simply lack the resources to provide their students with the necessities like up-to-date books, counselors, and librarians.
What we don’t talk enough about is how challenging it is for these schools to provide high-quality special education programs, which require specialized instruction and inclusive learning environments.
As a recent graduate of Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District, a petitioner in Pennsylvania’s fair funding lawsuit, I’ve seen firsthand just how much these schools are lacking, creating learning gaps students confront once they graduate and enter the real world.
I also recently spoke with another Penn Wood graduate who received special education services from first grade. The purpose of K-12 education is to ensure that by the end you feel prepared to enter a career or higher education with all the necessary tools. But this graduate didn’t feel prepared.
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He described the difficulty of going through frequent aide changes, a change that felt like hitting the reset button every time.
He recalled that near the end of 8th grade, a pivotal time of transition for students, another student’s aide left, “and so we had to share one. Although we had different needs, we shared that one aide for the remainder of my 8th grade year and for all of 9th grade,” he said. “During school events, I couldn’t go where I wanted to because we had to stay together.”
Situations like this are why it is essential that the state fairly fund all public schools and their special education programs by investing in basic and special education, using some of the state’s $12 billion in surplus revenue. This will make it more feasible for schools to hire and adequately pay teachers, aides, and psychologists who have the appropriate training to provide students with positive learning environments and timely interventions.
Students with identified disabilities are legally entitled to an individualized education program, or IEP, under both federal and state law. The sooner an evaluation for an IEP is done, the sooner a student can get back on track.
All kids want to do well in school; some just require additional assistance and extra tools to get there. An IEP offers that assistance by identifying a plan for that student’s success. Not in a few months, or in a few years, but as soon as possible.
I went to elementary and middle school with a student, whom I’ll refer to as EJ, who was labeled as “trouble.” It’s damaging when kids like EJ are given this label – when in some cases like his, what he needed was an IEP.
We were in the same grade, and I remember he loved writing. But sometimes he struggled to focus, and he had begun acting out, leading to suspensions. So he had to repeat his 4th grade year. About a year later, I realized he had been paired with a teacher from special education.
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I now wonder what trouble could have been avoided if he had received an IEP sooner. He may have even graduated from high school at the same time as me.
In under-resourced school districts like mine, too often the result of bad behavior is disciplinary action rather than a conversation or an assessment to figure out what that student needs. Unfortunately, certain kids are marked as “trouble” because resources for better alternatives such as additional aides and one-to-one sessions are unavailable.
According to the Education Law Center’s analysis, in the William Penn School District, special education expenditures have increased by $12 million since 2009.Yet state funding has only increased by $1 million, limiting what can be done.
Many other districts face similar or even larger disparities in funding from the state. The governor’s soon-to-be-voted-on budget proposal to increase special education funding by $200 million would start to close this gap so that fewer students fall through it.
Public schools are intended to be inclusive and accessible to all students. Yet too many are lacking the state’s help in achieving that objective. Students in special education experience the effects of underfunding in both basic education and special education, making it critical, now more than ever, that schools are fairly funded so every student can thrive.
Nasharie Stewart is a rising sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, where she is studying political science and psychology. She is currently a summer intern at the Education Law Center.