Allegheny County cutting education specialist positions who help students with special needs

Allegheny County is cutting education specialist positions who help students with special needs. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Article by Megan Tomasic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More than 100 students using Allegheny County’s special education services will see changes next school year after officials announced the elimination of three education specialist positions, a decision already receiving pushback from local advocacy groups.

Elimination of the positions, which provide consultation services between school districts and families to ensure student needs are met, was announced in a letter posted to the Allegheny County Department of Human Services website last week.

The letter attributed the decision largely to flat state funding. Similar services, officials said, are also already provided through DHS partners and programs such as the Student Assistance Program and school-based liaisons, who serve as links between educational systems, mental health providers and social service agencies. And the specialists program currently serves 5%, or 155, students with behavioral health individualized education plans in the 2023-24 school year.

“DHS is committed to serving as many individuals as possible with the limited dollars that are provided and are responsible to be stewards of those dollars,” the letter reads. “With flat funding and increasing need, we cannot continue to fund services that are already serving so few children and that are already available.”

But advocates were quick to respond.

Mary Hartley, president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, a community-based organization advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is concerned what this will mean for kids needing those services. 

“It takes years to truly develop the skills to navigate between mental health and educational systems serving children with disabilities, and these experts could be the difference between kids who get what they need to be included and those who end up in very segregated educational systems or worse,” Ms. Hartley said in a statement.

She added that while other professionals such as school-based liaisons and the Student Assistance Program have knowledge about education needs “it is highly unlikely they have the same expertise or bandwidth to support youth and their families.”

Education specialists first started at the county 25 years ago. The goal for the program was to help families and schools facilitate the development of IEPs for students with special needs. The position also provided families with information and contacts, along with updates on legislation related to special education.

Since its inception, the program has been paid for with county mental health dollars, which are funded by a block grant issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. The grant pays for things such as mental health services, and programs related to behavioral health, drugs and alcohol, and homelessness. This school year, $300,000 was budgeted for the education specialist program with grant money.

But according to a DHS statement, that funding has “remained relatively flat” over the years. And it took a hit a decade ago when it saw a 10% drop.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has made efforts to increase funding around mental health. Last year he increased mental health base funding by $20 million, meaning Allegheny County received $1.6 million, or less than 5% of the county’s mental health residential programs alone.

Now, Allegheny County’s education specialist program will continue through Aug. 31, giving county officials time to transition support for impacted officials.

Anybody with questions or concerns can contact the Directors Action Line at 1-800-862-6783.