You need to know a lot to understand education in New Jersey. Too much. It’s probably true everywhere but when I started to look into these issues for coverage here I was reminded of how complicated and insular the details are. Even more so for the education guidelines and funding for students with disabilities. It’s a shame because we need to know about it. Education shapes us as students and continues to govern our yearly schedules long after our school years and beyond, whether we have children in school or not. It is the big ticket item in every community’s budget, driving local taxes and development. And it is still the most important factor determining what our society will look like in future generations. Why is it so complicated? I think in part, it’s because of the way we layer on laws to address public policy issues. Also, federal regulations were first put into place forty-plus years ago to address inconsistencies across the states when the education of students with disabilities begin to demand more widespread attention. They in turn layered on their own laws to reassert the local individuality and sovereignty and it’s been going back and forth ever since. Finally, as more and more students with disabilities came into the mainstream guidelines were needed to serve them and merge those services with those of the other students. Complex challenges required complicated solutions. As a result though we’ve ended up with a rat’s nest of often duplicative and contradictory laws and regulations. As I was going over some of this stuff I was reminded of the Far Side cartoon where a student raises his hand and asks “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.” It is the way it is across the entire public policy spectrum. One day if we get and handle on some of those other more pressing myriad of problems, the ones that seem to always bump working on more structural fixes, we can finally clean up our regulatory systems so that when reforms need to be made new comers aren’t throwing out the very babies they are trying to serve and entrenched interests fighting to hold on to the stagnant bathwater. For now though, the Governor and the Legislature are plowing through another cycle of education budget issues and the State Board of Education has proposed changes to state regulations. Advocates are concerned because they say some of the funding decisions are based on incomplete and inconsistent assessments. They also see some necessary regulations at risk of being tossed. The funding framework put into place under Governor Jon Corzine requires an ongoing assessment of how things are working. Using this so-called Adequacy Report the state Department of Education has recommended several changes special education advocates have taken issue with, such as raising the cost threshold local distrcts must meet to get state help serving students with complex disabilities and using statewide averages rather than students’ needs in a proposed census formula. At the same time the State Board has recommended a number of modifications to the codes and regulations. Those changes seemed to be aimed at reducing bureaucratic duplications, paperwork and personnel with the goal of saving money, ostensibly without sacrificing outcomes. Advocates say they see some babies going out in some of that bathwater. They note that proposed changes in areas such as the makeup of child study teams and the amount of time parents are given to review materials for meetings with their districts do have the potential for negative effects on students and families. For those of you who are motivated, the following link will take you to the NJ Spotlight page of education reporter John Mooney. His articles deal with the entire NJ Ed, which is important reading for all of us. But he also deals with specific special ed. issues and for those intrepid enough to try, is pretty well informed and as easy to read as this complex stuff can be. Also, the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform has information about these issues of their web site. Back on the Home Page here you can look under Initiatives for the Inclusive Education page as well. http://www.njspotlight.com/profiles/jmooney/ http://specialedfundingnj.org/ However, to follow the particulars of both the funding issues and the State Board’s recommendations in any meaningful way still requires a fairly sophisticated knowledge of where it has all been and how it got to where it is now. Believe me, I’ve been trying all morning and now, as the little boy in the cartoon said, I’m full. Broadly though it boils down to balancing needs and costs. What a surprise. How to do that, of course, is where it gets to all that complicated stuff. In my initial review however, one issue jumped out as pretty straightforward and one we can all weigh in on without being education experts. It might even help the experts keep us lay folks better informed, which makes for better public policy in my opinion. It seems from what I’ve read so far that there isn’t enough good data to work from, as amazing as that sounds in this day and age. If that is indeed true it would appear to be priority Numero Uno. According to one of the Mooney articles “(t)he state Legislature last month cleared the way for a new task force that would explore all special-education issues, including the increasing demand for more funding.” I know we all groan at another task force, but as State Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth), a chief sponsor of the bill, said there is some urgency to the situation that may help it transcend the less than stellar fate of other such efforts. If it does move ahead, the first order of business should be to come to that consensus about what factual data is needed to make the necessary informed public policy decisions and gather it if it exist or generate it if it doesn’t. That’s simple isn’t it? Otherwise we are left with situations where, however sincere the respective beliefs, claims that such and such practice is unnecessary and wasteful are pitted against claims that such and such a modification will harm students and families. Both are supported by cherry picked information making it difficult to make meaningful comparisons. We all need to be working from the same baselines. Let’s not be afraid to get the facts. They may not always tell you what you want to hear but they have a way of standing the test of time and cutting through the fog. We will soon be able to harness the quantum memory of atoms and build grapheme antennas to transmit terabit wireless downloads, we ought to be able to design an education funding and regulatory system for the 21st Century. But first we all need to working from the same set of facts. If another task force could accomplish that it would be worth the time and effort.