Pennsylvania’s children with disabilities need fair funding

Posted on • Reading Time: 3 min read
Nicole Wyglendowski teaches special education for the School District of Philadelphia.
Nicole Wyglendowski teaches special education for the School District of Philadelphia

Sally, a first grader, has dyslexia, a reading disability. She starts her school day in general education class, and at some point during the day, I come to get her and a few of her peers. When we transition into my special education classroom, we begin working on an entirely different curriculum.

While Sally may have been learning about adding double-digit numbers in general education, we learn about place value in my classroom. This is disruptive and confusing for a 6-year-old with a disability.

If Sally lived in a state with a different funding formula, her day would be smoother. She would have two teachers in her classroom: a special education teacher and a general education teacher working with her at her level. She would learn one curriculum at a time instead of two, so it would be less confusing. If Sally’s individualized education plan team determined that she needed additional help, she would also get that.

The recent fair funding trial decision, which deemed the current Pennsylvania funding formula unconstitutional and mandates that the state properly fund the existing $4.6 billion gap, has the potential to drastically impact the lives of students such as Sally. The additional funding would ensure that Sally can attend a school without asbestos, have enough school supplies, and even a fully functional library. In Philadelphia, Sally comes to a school every day with crumbling infrastructure and vacant positions. She deserves better. Her neighborhood school should and can be a high-quality place that meets her needs.

With fair funding, Pennsylvania’s children with disabilities would have access to more teaching styles and get the support they need. These styles might include the co-teaching model or the pullout small group instruction model. Right now, options are limited. In Pennsylvania, the only option is to do what I currently do: pull out a small group of students to a different classroom (or in most cases, a small office or closet because of a lack of space).

This is not an issue that affects just a select few children. There are more than 300,000 students with disabilities in Pennsylvania who would benefit from increased funding. About half of students statewide qualify for free and reduced lunch, making this a child poverty issue, too. As a teacher, I cannot stress this fact enough: The quality of a child’s education should not depend on their abilities and their neighborhood’s wealth.

Having educated community members helps all of us live in a safer, happier, and healthier society. It all starts with public education, but we cannot educate without fair funding. We would not expect a doctor to perform surgery without the proper equipment, so how can we expect Sally to learn without the proper tools?

Gov. Josh Shapiro needs to honor the court’s decision and fund our schools. Funding for special education needs to come from the state, and it needs to come now so that my students have options to succeed.

The governor proposed an additional $567.4 million for basic education funding and $103.8 million for special education funding in next year’s education budget, but this does not come close to addressing the over $4 billion shortfall that we have in our state. This low increase in funding barely keeps pace with inflation and, after such a historic court case, is disappointing for students all over our state.

Sally cannot wait for the funding; she needs to learn to read right now. She will learn to read, write, do math, and be a productive member of our community if she has access to multiple learning styles right here in her neighborhood public school. The final education budget should include a $700 million increase in basic education funding, $300 million in Level Up funding for the 100 poorest districts, $236.5 million more in special education funding, and $500 million for school facilities.

Every child deserves options and choices in their school that are based on their individual needs, not based on an insufficient budget.

Nicole Wyglendowski is K-5 special education learning support teacher at Edward T. Steel in Philadelphia and a 2022-2023 Teach Plus Pennsylvania policy fellow.