For over 100 years, school districts in Wisconsin counties were serviced by county superintendents. As school district reorganization developed and school districts became larger, the role of the county superintendent changed substantially. The 1963 Legislature and various school organizations studied the pattern of Wisconsin school organization and concluded that the county superintendency should be replaced with Cooperative Educational Service Agencies.
The function of the Cooperative Educational Service Agencies is clearly defined in Section 116.01 of the State Statutes.
The organization of school districts in Wisconsin is such that the legislature recognizes the need for a service unit between the school district and the State Superintendent. The Cooperative Educational Service Agencies may provide leadership and coordination of services for school districts, including such programs as curriculum development assistance; school district management development; coordination of vocational education; and exceptional education, research, special student classes, human growth and development, data collection processing and dissemination, and in-service programs.
Cooperative Educational Service Agencies — better known as CESAs — help school districts share staff, services and purchasing, and provide a link between local districts and the state. All services provided are determined by participating member school districts. Special education for disabled students is the service CESAs most commonly provide schools.
In 1965, 19 CESAs covering the state began operating in Wisconsin. In 1983, the legislature reduced the number to the current 12. By 1990, 27 states had some form of regional CESA network. A leading CESA observer predicts that fiscal pressures and increased interest in school improvement will see that number rise to more than two-thirds of the states by the turn of the century.
The only funding Wisconsin’s CESAs are guaranteed by law is a maximum of $25,000 from the state for “maintenance and operation of the office of the board of control and agency administrator.” Local school boards are required to match the state’s amount with each district’s share based on enrollment.
The leading source of CESA funds, in all cases, was revenue from member school districts. Federal dollars support programs that CESAs may operate directly, such as Head Start, or on behalf of school districts, such as math-science training or vocational assistance. State dollars are principally special education categorical aids otherwise paid to local school districts.
In at least two CESAs, alternate schools for at-risk youngsters are operated. CESAs provide curriculum specialists, environmental education, gifted and talented programs, and enrichment activities such as academic decathlons and spelling bees.
Some education reformers see these agencies as well positioned to foster school change. They say CESAs understand the needs of local schools because of the close relationship they have with their customer-schools; possess a useful regional perspective; and offer the resources needed to help train staff, reform curriculum and implement school change.
Many local school officials also say the agencies help financially pressed districts save money without sacrificing services, while offering the expertise and counsel needed to improve schools without loss of local control.