Dipping under the surface for meaning

I often try to gain two sets of meaning from the things I experience: 1) the immediate meaning, and 2) the meaning I can apply to similar situations. This month’s story focuses on a very dry policy report but also reminded me of the need to look at the meaning below the surface of the words.\

Enjoy the story, and let me know if there is anything I can do for you or the organizations you’re engaged with.

In this issue:

Story: Dipping under the surface:

I recently reviewed a study by the Wisconsin Policy Forum on special education funding. The study illuminates some very dry policy but also provides insights as to why some maybelieve Special Education funding decreases the quality of education for all K-12 students. Wisconsin’s Governor is planning to lessen the impact of special education funding on overall K-12 education spending.

Wisconsin uses a funding model where special education funds are allocated through the State and general education funds areraised within individual school districts. This arrangement is complicated by two factors:

  1. The State of Wisconsin regulates how much the school districts are allowed to spend locally.
  2. The State doesn’t fully fund the cost of special education.

The difference between the actual cost of special education and the State funding comes out of the district’s general funds. This sets up a situation where the actual funding available to a school district is the regulated general education funding, less the unfunded special education costs. This might be avoided if special education expenses were fully reimbursed or if school district funding were not regulated by the State Legislature.

Costs associated with educating students with disabilities are referred to as “excess costs.” The challenge with referring to special education costs as excess costs is it is a short jump from special education costs are excess costs to special education students are “excess” students. While I’d like to think this wouldn’t happen, the funding model is an invitation to conclude that special education students are an unnecessary drain on general education funds available to the district.

Lessons learned:

So, what is the story about? I had to ask myself the same question. At first glance it sounds like a story about special education funding. Or, maybe it’s a story about educational funding. Or, it’s a story about Wisconsin State legislative processes. All of those are true.

As I learned of the details of Wisconsin’s educational funding model I came to realize the story is an example of how easy it is to overlook the details of a situation and draw uninformed conclusions.

The WI Policy Forum’s report describes how education funding in Wisconsin works and how policy decisions regarding general and special education affect the total funding available to school districts in Wisconsin.The funding model is relatively complicated with a number of unpredictable variables. Given the fact that the general fund is regulated from outside the school district and special education is only partially funded, closely monitoring special education spending at the district level makes good sense.

When the Wisconsin State Legislature decided on school funding policy it’s likely they believed that by regulating available funding at the State level they would compel the local school districts to be more conscientious in their decision making. An unintended consequence of this regulatory policy is that it arbitrarily focuses on special education as an independent variable thatdetermines the general education fund of a district. A more effective funding model would likely lessen the problem of underfunded special education and allow for greater local control of general school funding.

The fact is every school district has a population of students. The total cost of providing educational services to the student population divided by the total number of students equals the per student cost of education in the district.There is a good chance that no one student has educational expenses equal to the district average. A fairly simple statistical analysis of per student costs would likely show that 95% of the students fell within two standard deviations from the average per student cost. There are all sorts of reasons why per student costs deviate from the average. Some students participate in music, athletics, etc., others use the school library more/less than others, some use science labs more/less, etc, and some have disabling conditions. While it’s best practice to track subsets of student population costs, the categorization of costs beyond the average as “excess costs” could get awkward very quickly. For example, it is likely that the majority of academic and athletic scholarship recipients receive educational services in excess of the district average. While many school districts celebrate the exceptional achievements of students, few regard the cost of award winning achievement as excess expenses.

Apple products present an interesting contrast to Wisconsin’s public education policy. Every Apple product includes accessibility features for persons with disabling conditions. While I’m sure someone at Apple knows the per unit cost of Apple’s accessibility features, they are not likely referred to as “excess costs.” Similarly, I’ve never thought to inquire about the “excess cost” I pay for the visualdisplay thatI have turned off, on my Apple products. It’s just an unnecessary feature that is there in case a light dependent person might have an occasional need.

While I’ve regularly encountered criticism of special education services as a drain on resources available to the general public, I’ve never seen a reference to Apple’s commitment to accessibility as a distraction to the general consumer experience.

Food for thought:

This issue has focused around Wisconsin’s K-12 education funding policy. I’m aware that I have a position on the topic and that my opinion may not be shared by others. As I reflect on the story, and what I learned from it, I find a few thoughts that serve to reinforce the lessons learned rather than the position I hold:

  • How does this one thing fit as a part of all things?
  • We are each of us broken, and yet, we are all whole persons.
  • We are more alike my friends than we are unalike. – Maya Angelou
  • The cause is hidden; the effect is visible to all. (Ovid)
  • No mud, no lotus. (Buddhist saying)

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For more information:

Dan Lococo, PhD

Barrier Knocker Downer

dan.lococo@gmail.com

414.333.5846

Twitter: @danlococo

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Copyright 2019, Dan Lococo, All rights reserved

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