Thursday, March 10, 2011

My take on the Wisconsin Schools Budget Thing

There is one gripe missing from our public discourse about how the budget crisis is affecting education.

I am not sure the 10-second attention span of the public can grasp this subtle point, but this is my blog so I'm going to try.

The daily news is filled with stories about California schools laying off teachers, closing libraries, canceling music programs. And there is this national debate about whether public employees have the right to collective bargaining.

I've been a voter for around 35 years and for nearly every one of them, I've heard arguments for and against propositions to give more money to schools. Sometimes they want to raise our taxes, sometimes it's a bond measure. But we are always hearing about the need for more classrooms, more retrofitting, more infrastructure maintenance.

At some point the public got tired of the schools' insatiable demand for cash, and they said No.

Now that I am a public employee, I still have no idea where all the money really goes, and that's what worries me. We are blaming unions, and teachers, but ultimately these, along with students are going to suffer. In my opinion, we should be blaming the boards and administrators that make decisions about how the money was spent. Whether or not these decisions were sound, the problem is boards rarely work to sell the public on how much previous generosity benefited education. They just took the publics money and used it somehow, and then came back to the trough to beg for more.

Successful nonprofits keep the public apprised of how their donations are being spent. But schools don't do a good job of celebrating with their donors. They don't even see the public really as donors, and this is why there is so much whining and complaining if the public fails to cough up more cash year after year.

Schools of all education levels need to communicate to the public when things are going well how their donations are helping. They need to publicly show where all that money is and is not being spent. They can ask for more next year, if they prepared the public beforehand by showing what they were unable to afford.

But pride gets in the way. The school board doesn't say "Hey there John Q. Public. We are way out of compliance with this law because we felt unethical about not giving our hardworking teachers a raise. So we decided to invest in them this year even if we had to skimp a little on fire safety." If people were willing to loos a little face for the sake of full disclosure, I am sure the public would be understanding as everyone needs to make some tradeoffs in budgeting.

The result: one gets the feeling that schools are hiding something even when they aren't. Tenured professors, lavish new buildings, heavily hyped athletic programs, excessive vice-presidents, deans and other assorted administrators earning high salaries lead to the public's perception that money is being wasted.

The public doesn't realize all the regulations that school's labor under; all the unfunded mandates that supposedly level the playing field for the underprivileged or set exact standards and requirements for accreditation. If for example, a school is required to maintain an expensive program to feed children below the poverty line -- if it's required to undertake costly earthquake retrofitting to stay in compliance, if the impact of ongoing pension funds is high and reducing its impact on the environment is causing it to spend some of the public's funds, then the public must be aware of these burdens. Otherwise the public is going to mistakenly believe that the school is wasting their money.

The subtle part of this point is that I am not judging whether the existence of unfunded mandates is right or wrong. I'm also not saying that any particular school has too many chiefs or pays for too many Indians. I am not saying schools should or should not repeatedly ask the public for more support.

What I am saying is that school boards and administrators need to take responsibility for publicizing and openly demonstrating exactly where and how the public's money is spent. There will be great debate of course, but nobody will accuse the schools of hiding expenses and they will earn more respect and probably more funding as well!

Outlook and JAWS

There is an annoying problem for JAWS users who read email in Outlook. When trying to read a typical html-formatted newsletter, Jaws, and I assume other screen readers repeatedly read "Right-click to download pictures. Outlook prevented download of this picture from the internet." And most newsletters have tons of image links which JAWS faithfully insists on reading all this text for each.

Sighted people just don't see any pictures. They can right-click on any of them to get the image, but I who don't care about pictures, simply want the annoying message about how outlook is protecting me to go away.

I discovered how to fix it. The fix does download pictures, but I don't get newsletters from unknown companies so I figure I'm pretty safe. Simply right-click on the message in your inbox before opening it and from the context menu, select "Add sender to Safe Senders List." Typical Microsoft, now isn't that the most intuitive solution you've heard of lately?

An Open Letter to Blind Journalists Visiting CSUN

Every year, I eagerly await the reports from the CSUN convention floor. I follow Main Menu, Blind Bargains and assorted blogs.

And I am always disappointed. This is the major technology conference, and you make sacrifices in both time and financing to attend.

Yet, instead of sniffing out stories, you consistently report on information that marketers push in your face. I can always learn the newest features in JAWS by simply visiting the Freedom Scientific Website. I don't want to hear a report about some new-fangled vibrating tactile electronic graphics system that is now being tested at an obscure university in south Korea. And I don't care about the latest camera-based portable OCR reading device that costs two grand and is manufactured bhy Independence Solutions, a company nobody's heard of.

Instead, I want to know what phones other blind attendees are loving and which ones are giving them fits. I want to know if Adobe's presentation on its highly touted Digital Editions is finally an accessible platform or if the presentation was just nmore hype about improvements planned for the future. I want to know which screen readers or ebook devices were duelling this year, and especially which tasks the looser performed well on.

Step out of the sessions exclusively for the blind and visit something on ebook accessibility, learning disabilities or access to distance education. Talk with the many teachers who attend about their experiences serving our community.

Spend less of your time in the convention hall, and stop quoting the color brochures. Devote that time interviewing ordinary attendees, and find out what technology has disappointed them the last couple of years.

Get proactive and enlighten me with CSUN coverage I am unlikely to discover through other sources.


Sent this out to as many people as I could think of and got a few interesting replies.

Most complained that the $500 conference fee was a barrier, but to me it seems the interesting discussions are happening outside of the sessions. One person griped that the more over-funded some presenter was, the less likely his presentation was to have unique content.