On the same day that Pennsylvania’s Special Education Funding Commission held its first on-the-road hearing in western Pennsylvania, a leading education advocacy group called on the state to increase the amount of funding available to districts for students with disabilities.

State aid to school districts has failed to keep pace with rising costs of special education, where expenditures have ballooned by a whopping 58 percent over the past decade, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

The stagnant support from the state has forced school districts to shoulder an ever-increasing share of special education costs, the report states.

“Pennsylvania’s chronic underfunding of special education cannot be resolved solely through the work of the legislature’s Special Education Funding Commission,” the report reads. “The General Assembly must make an increased state investment. Without prompt and comprehensive state action, issues of inadequacy and inequity will deepen for students with disabilities across the Commonwealth.”

As an example of that gap, the report’s authors pointed to the Moon Area School District, where the commission held its first public hearing on Tuesday. It held another hearing Wednesday in Erie County.

Special education spending in Moon Area, a suburban Pittsburgh school system, grew by $4.9 million between 2008 and 2018, according to the Education Law Center’s analysis of state data. At the same time, the district’s state aid grew by just $118,000.

Western Pennsylvania school administrators who testified before the commission on Tuesday said the number of students receiving special education designations is rising — and, along with it, the cost of educating each one of them.

They also said that more children have multiple disabilities which require complex and costly interventions.

James Wagner, executive director of Armstrong-Indiana Intermediate Unit 28, in Indiana, Pa., said that the trend could be a consequence of the ongoing opioid epidemic, which has led to an increased number of children born to opioid-addicted mothers or into families with people battling addiction.

The number of children diagnosed with “emotional disturbances” is one of the fastest-growing areas of special education demand, administrators said.

“The number of children needing five, six, seven different services is increasing,” Wagner said. “One of the impacts of the opioid crisis that we’ll deal with for years to come is kids being born with complex needs.”

The 15-member special education funding commission — chaired by state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh; state Rep. Curtis Sonney, R-Erie, and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera — will travel across the commonwealth this fall to hear testimony from school administrators, educators, parents, and disability rights advocates on the state of special education in Pennsylvania.

They’ll use that testimony to write a report for the General Assembly, which may or may not recommend changes to the formula Pennsylvania uses to disburse special education dollars to local school districts.

The commission can’t recommend how much money Pennsylvania should spend on special education. That power lies with the General Assembly, which makes an allocation for special education services each year as it sets the state’s annual budget.

Elizabeth Hardison is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story originally appeared.

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