Wednesday, June 18, 2014
A western Pennsylvania newspaper did some number crunching on school funding, disability, and poverty levels in the area. The paper found that "[o]f the 117 school districts in southwestern Pennsylvania, 40 educated a higher-than-average population of both special education and low-income students during the 2012-13 school year." And "that districts that serve low-income families are more likely to have higher percentages of special-education students. All but 12 of the 52 districts that serve communities with more than 41 percent of students identified as low-income also have a higher than average percent of special-education students. Comparatively, of the 65 districts serving fewer low-income families than average, only 21 have more than 15.3 percent of students identified as special education."
The paper turned to experts to help explain the phenomenon. The response "districts serving poor families deal with several issues that can affect whether a student is identified as special education, . . . including inadequate prenatal care, poor nutrition, and a fetal drug and alcohol problems." Lump on top of that the fact that these poor communities tend to have low tax bases, which means their capacity to fund educational in general is limited. In short, these poor communities experience a perfect storm: student poverty, high levels of disability, and underfunded schools regardless of demographics.
The proposed solution was to make a district's socioeconomic status a factor in special education funding, rather than relying on flat amount. At first glance, that sounds like an appropriate response, although countermeasures are likely also necessary so as to ward of perverse incentives in the identification of disability, which may already exist to some extent and explain so overidentification. Regardless, raising these issues in the context of western Pennyslvania is particularly important because, other than Pittsburgh, the area is is largely rural and white, with significant percentages of poverty and undereducation. These demographics take race out of the picture. All too often, issues of poverty are equated with or clouded by issues of race, impeding a fair and objective look at and response to the problem. That does not, however, mean a solution will be forthcoming. My suspicion is that, as poor and rural districts, these Pennsylvania communities still have limited political sway.
As a side note, those interested in poverty and disability should read James Ryan's recent article discussing the relevance of poverty in the identification of individual students' disabilities.