The Special Education Funding Quandary Continues

Earlier this week, the US Department of Education published a new rule designed to prevent local and state governments from reducing their budget expenditures for special education (known as maintenance of effort-MOE). While on the surface, this is sound policy, it does not solve a longstanding quandary which both the federal and state governments have left local school districts in, forcing them into a rob Peter to pay Paul situation.

On one hand, federal special education law, known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) makes quite clear that students with significant disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) regardless of how much it costs. Yet, as discussed below, both the state and federal governments fail to provide sufficient funding for special education forcing local school districts to choose between honoring the civil rights of their students with disabilities or skimping on that funding in order to fund the education needs of other students in their districts.

When Congress passed the first special education law, it promised that it would fund 40% of those costs. However, Congress has never fulfilled that promise.  In fact, since this promise was enshrined in statute in 1981, the federal percentage of special education funding has roughly ranged between a paltry 10-18%.  Current funding is approximately 16%. The per-child expenditure has essentially been frozen during President Obama’s tenure, only increasing by $1/child in 6 years. You can review charts of this funding here.

In Wisconsin, we have a double problem when it comes to state funding of special education. First, despite, once promising in state law to fund 63% of special education funding (another promise never fulfilled), state budget support of special education funding continues to fall. Twenty years ago, state government paid for 45% of special education costs. That reimbursement rate has dropped to 27%.

The math is simple:          lots-of-dollar-signs-clip-art

Federal special education funding:  16%

State special education funding:       27%                 

Local special education funding:      57%

The problem is compounded in Wisconsin because state law imposes revenue caps on local school districts which are completely unrelated to their special education costs. School districts may only increase their budgets beyond nominal inflationary amounts by going to referendum, and no school district has ever successfully had the voters approve a referendum to increase their special education funding at the local level. Thus, the twin failure of the federal and state governments to provide sufficient special education funding, combined with revenue caps leaves school districts in a situation where they can only meet their legal obligations to their students with disabilities by taking funding from other parts of the school district budget.

No parent of a child with disabilities wants this dilemma posed by their child’s civil right to a sufficiently funded education, and our state and federal government’s failure to provide sufficient funding to make that right a reality. The US Department of Education’s new Maintenance of Effort regulation is a small step in the right direction, but it fails to address the real problem created by Congress and the states by their failure to provide sufficient special education funding.

I have often told school district administrators that they cannot refuse to fund the educational needs of my clients with disabilities, but I understand their fiscal plight, so I am willing to join them in the battle for additional state and federal funding. I look forward to the day when that dilemma forced upon local school districts by the failure of Congress & state legislatures is a thing of the past.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Protecting the Nest, Preserving the Earth

The late, great comedian, George Carlin, had a routine about protecting the environment, in which he suggests that, “the planet is fine, but the people are f#$k@d.” You can watch the whole routine here.

The struggle to protect our environment is not new, and yet, despite ever growing signs of imminent catastrophe due to climate change, some of our political leaders bury their heads in the sand and deny the existence of climate change, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, or duck the issue when asked. As recently as yesterday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker twice declined to say whether he believed that climate change is real and influenced by human activity. He deflected by stating,

I believe that the government needs to make sure we balance between a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment.

While such a position may appear reasonable at first glance, the truth is by failing to confront the reality of climate change, Gov. Walker and others like him, fail to understand that a sustainable economy cannot exist without a sustainable environment and failing to confront the human damage caused to our environment head on will result in economic disaster. As Governor Walker was tacitly denying the importance of climate change, he explicitly worked to undercut his own state’s Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) ability to protect Wisconsin’s environment by issuing layoff notices to 57 DNR staff, 27 of whom are in the Bureau of Science Services, due to the Governor’s proposed drastic budget cuts. The timing was remarkable as these layoff notices were issued on Earth Day.

For my own part, I have a small unpaid role in government which serves to protect the environment of a truly special place. I serve as the Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD) in central Wisconsin, where my wife and I have the privilege of owning a beautiful natural piece of land much of which remains untouched by human hands.  When we first bought this land 23 years ago, we discovered that Sand Hill Cranes nested there, but since they had almost been wiped out due to the now banned pesticide DDT, there were very few.  Fortunately, they have made a comeback, which has caused some to want to hunt them, which thankfully has not been permitted as of yet.

In order to make sure the GLWD is monitoring the health of Goose Lake, I take the opportunity to explore the lake as often as possible, often by canoe. This past weekend, I had the remarkable fortune to notice that the GLWD’s work is paying off in the health of breeding water fowl.

First, I noticed this magnificent Sand Hill Crane protecting her egg on her nest.

20150419_151942 Then, my canoe must have startled a mother goose on her nest causing her to leave it and allowing me to take this picture of her eggs. 20150419_151703

These breeding waterfowl are signs of a healthy environment, but it takes work to sustain that health. It also takes an appreciation of these small things in nature in order to take personal action to protect the environment. President Obama understands this which is why he spoke to a group of 4th graders on Earth Day, and announced his initiative to provide free National Park access to all families of 4th graders, because providing our children with the appreciation of nature’s magnificence will inspire many to protect the earth in a manner which sustains the rich diversity of life on it, which is a never ending generational task.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Using All the Puzzle Pieces to End Racism

My community is reeling in the aftermath of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black teen. While Madison anxiously awaits for the release of the state Department of Justice’s investigation into this killing, and whether or not the police officer will be prosecuted by the Dane County District Attorney, protests continue and acrimony remains high.

It is important to understand the larger context of this shooting to fully understand the furor of the protests. Despite its image as a progressive community, Madison’s racial disparities in school, incarceration and poverty are well documented. In fact, it is not unreasonable to describe Madison and the entire state of Wisconsin as having the worst racial disparities in the nation. I have previously written about the need for Madison to move from worst to first in this critical area.

It is not surprising then, that a group such as Young, Gifted & Black has surged to the forefront of the protests since Tony Robinson’s violent death at the hands of a police officer. This group has organized protests and shouted out demands for change at mayoral debates. Earlier this week, they blocked traffic for 7 hours in a major 6 lane artery in front of my son’s high school, causing disruption throughout the day.

Some, including Madison Police Chief Mike Koval, have chastised the tactics of some of the more vocal protestors, suggesting that “you deserve anything that you have coming to you when you engage in that sort of rhetoric.” Such statements only add fuel to the fire and suggest that the Police Chief could use some help editing his blog and before he speaks publicly.

Other voices are more moderate, calling for change and understanding. Rev. Alex Gee has led this group dubbing his movement, “Justified Anger.” Rev. Gee and I have discussed the need for a systems change approach to end racism in Madison.

Sadly, the power structure in Madison and the State of Wisconsin simply has not changed with regard to its failure to own genuine accountability for these horrific racial disparities which are ruining so many lives and poisoning our society at large. Indeed, Madison voters appear to accept the status quo in recently re-electing the mayor who has presided over these persistent racial disparities for so many years.

Systems change does not come easily and it takes many actors working the system in many ways. Rather than fighting about whether someone’s methods are effective or not, recognizing that no one method will solve the gigantic and historic problem of racism, will help all those working on the problem understand that they should support each puzzle piece in fitting together to solve the problem even if it is not a puzzle piece they choose to own for themselves.

Recently, I was reminded that one of the puzzle pieces involves bringing the community together in  joyous ways. Last weekend, the Madison East High Jazz Orchestra played a wonderful free concert at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. From a young, gifted and black singer who channelled Stevie Wonder and James Brown IMG_2565to the son of Madison School Superintendent who loved dancing to the music, IMG_2564this concert helped students feel pride in their accomplishment and the community recognize that there are many ways to come together to solve the problems or racism including music and dance.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Voting Builds Community

Yesterday, just as I have done for the past 2 1/2 years, I served as an election official at my local ward. The first time I did this was during the Presidential election in 2012, and I was assigned to a polling station on the University of Wisconsin campus. It was truly inspiring to see so many first time voters who were truly excited to cast their first ballots. Some were literally bouncing up and down with joy as they waited in line.

Last year, at my request, the City Clerk reassigned me to my local voting ward, at the Tenney Park shelter, and yesterday, as I registered voters (including my 18 year old son who cast a ballot for the first time), I realized how voting amongst one’s neighbors builds community.

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This happens in many ways. Of course, at its most basic level, the very act of voting is an act of building community. Yesterday’s vote including an overwhelming act of building community as the vast majority of Madison voters approved a $41 million referendum to make many of Madison’s schools more accessible to all, and to improve their decaying infrastructure. Included in this referendum will be a long sought and desperately needed renovation of the decrepit theater at Madison East High School, where my son will graduate soon.

Sadly, local elections like yesterday’s, tend to have low voter turnout, which is a shame since the opportunity for community building at the local level includes electing members of the city council, county board, the mayor, and school board members, all of whom are critical to shaping our community in the days to come.

But there are also more subtle ways in which my experience as an election official helps build community.

  • I registered a woman who rents the house across the street from me, which led to a conversation about her hope to buy the house and remain in our wonderful neighborhood.
  • The woman who helped me register voters lives in condominium complex and was warmly greeted my many of her neighbors who came to vote.
  • The Chair of the Madison Parks commission came to vote which led to an interesting conversation about upcoming improvements to Tenney Park, where our ward votes, and my discovery that Madison has over 200 parks!
  • Many friends and neighbors took the time to greet me, each other & other election officials who are their neighbors and friends, building community with each conversation.

While many focus on the outcome of elections, and of course, it does matter who wins and loses, we should not lose sight of the uncounted benefit of voting as a critical factor in building community, and in my case, it is a community of which I am proud to help build.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Liberation from Narrowness

For the first time in many years, my family is not hosting Passover seder, because we are blessed by friends who have invited us into their homes. Since I am not leading a seder this year, I will share some thoughts about Passover’s meaning for personal liberation with my readers.

I have long viewed Passover’s annually re-telling the story of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt as the critical link which has bound the Jewish people together for well over 2000 years despite repeated attempts to annihilate us. These annual reminders that we were once slaves and now we are free serve us well by helping us cherish our hard fought freedoms and recall that they can be taken away at any time.

Liberation is both personal and communal and in order to free oneself, one must understand the nature of the enslavement one experiences. The Passover story starts in Egypt. As one author put it,

In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim. According to the text on Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” (mi, “from,” tzar, “narrow” or “tight”). When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He extricated us from the place of constricted opportunities, tight control, and narrow-mindedness, where movement was severely limited.

When my wife and I host a seder, I usually start by asking all of our guests to describe something which enslaves them, as well as their wishes for personal freedom in the coming year. Many guests have shared their challenges at work and school, with their health, and sometimes with society at large. This exercise often allows my friends and family to share sincere desires for how they will escape their personal Mitzrayim (narrow straits) in the coming year. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it is certainly impossible to gain personal freedom without identifying the personal or communal tight controls which enslave us.

As we enter this Passover season, my deepest wish is for disenfranchised people all over the world, who suffer from constricted opportunities, to recognize that the possibility for change is always present, and to remain ready for empowerment at both the personal and communal level, as one never knows when genuine cultural change will happen. Indeed, as little as one generation ago, the words gay marriage were rarely spoken and certainly not seriously contemplated as possible. Now, the concept is so culturally accepted that those who vilify it find themselves in the minority.

For me, that means that I appreciate each and every opportunity I have to help others gain their personal freedom by helping them achieve their civil rights to the fullest extent possible. While I know that my efforts are only one small part of the liberation struggle, I treasure the ongoing opportunity to play that role.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.