O’Neill’s Special Ed Plan Awaits Governor’s Signature

Doylestown Intelligencer

Not quite one year ago, state Rep. Bernie O’Neill was beside himself as his legislation to reform special education funding was rewritten in such a way that he refused to support the measure, and it ultimately collapsed.

“I had such an empty, hollow feeling,” O’Neill recalled Tuesday. “Last year the process was so frustrating. I bit my tongue and just continued plugging ahead.”

That perseverance, nearly seven years worth, is close to paying off as O’Neill’s House Bill 2 and its Senate companion SB 470 passed both chambers without a negative vote. It will become law with Gov. Tom Corbett’s signature, which a spokeswoman said Tuesday is “likely” to happen.

“People have told me this is the biggest thing to happen for education in Pennsylvania in more than 20 years,” said O’Neill, R-29.

While the legislation does not establish a new funding formula, it creates a 15-member panel to drive money to schools with a growing number of physically- and mentally-challenged students.

Currently, state funding is based on an estimate that special education students make up 16 percent of the overall student population in each district.

O’Neill, a former special education teacher for 25 years, called that formula “archaic” as it “starves areas with increasing populations of special needs students of the resources they need to succeed.”

The legislative commission will establish three cost categories for students receiving special education services, ranging from least to most intensive, and assign a weight to each category of disability.

A student count for each school district, averaged for the three most recent years, must also be established for each cost category.

O’Neill called the student count “one of the keys” to the bill. “Students will now have to be counted for reimbursement purposes,” he said. “We will now know how many special education students are in category one, two and three.”

Republican Sen. Pat Browne of Lehigh County, the sponsor of SB 470, said the bill’s proposals are “long overdue” and described the current formula “rigid.”

“It does not take into account the actual number of students needing specialized education services or the type and intensity of assistance that they require,” he said.

Mark Miller, a Centennial School Board member and vice president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association, said his organizations supported the legislation and he called on lawmakers to pass it.

It passed the House 193-0 and the Senate 50-0.

“This legislation hasn’t been encumbered by other objectives of the charter reform movement,” Miller said. “Once the governor signs it, the commission will be able to get to the work of resolving the special education funding formula.”

Last session, when amendments blew up the bill, O’Neill said “six years of work went down the drain” because (Corbett) “used my bill for backroom deals.”

He said he spoke with House Speaker Sam Smith “after everything fell apart. ‘Your bill will be HB 2,’ Smith told him. ‘You have my word.’ Sam Smith kept his word.”

O’Neill credited all four caucuses for running his bill “clean” this time around.

“There were no egos on this,” he said. “And the kids will be the winners.”

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