Mark Twain once said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That’s never been more true than what Iowans have been told about Governor Reynolds’s proposed changes for AEAs (Area Education Agencies). The AEA system was created 50 years ago primarily to assist schools to effectively teach our students with disabilities, and to provide other educational services for all students. The current system is failing to achieve the desired outcomes. After months of conversations with school superintendents, AEA employees, and the Iowa Dept. of Education, it’s my belief that the current system is ‘administratively heavy, and performance light’.

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The primary goal of the proposed changes is to improve the supports and services for students with disabilities. Full stop. But based on the feedback I’m getting from around the state, it appears that Iowans have been told just the opposite, that the proposed changes would remove those supports and services. So let me repeat: The goal is to improve the supports and services for students with disabilities, and the Governor’s proposed plan would do exactly that.

Why is there a need to restructure the AEA system? The answer is this: the existing AEA system is funded by $529 million of property taxes, state aid, and federal funding, and the result is that, since 2017, Iowa students with disabilities ranked 30th or worse on 9 of 12 NAEP assessments. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has identified Iowa as “needs assistance” for the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). If Iowa does not act, the Biden Administration could determine a course of action and in-person monitoring by the USDE could begin this fall.

Accountability and transparency of any and all government programs is essential, and that is lacking in our current system. Why? Under the current model, the state aid and property tax funds generated by a school district for special education and media services are passed through directly to the AEA system. The AEA then provides a bundle of services back to the schools, but there is no mechanism to measure the value of those services to the schools relative to the dollars passed through to the AEA system.

For examples in my Senate district, the Oskaloosa Community school district receives approximately $1.2 million in funding that passes though to the AEA system dollar for dollar. But in my view, Oskaloosa cannot put an actual dollar value on the services received in return. The same would be true of the Pella school district which passes $1.1 million through to the AEA, or Newton schools who pass $1.7 million through.

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Under the proposed changes, those dollars would go to the school districts and then give the local school boards the opportunity to decide how that money would be spent for their students. The local district could then choose one of three options, or a combination of the options. They could simply choose to send the money on to the AEA and work with them as before, or they could decide to hire some of their own employees to serve their students, or they could contract with private providers to tailor those services to best serve their students. Whichever option they choose, accountability and transparency are achieved by creating a pricing structure that establishes value vs. cost.

Most Iowans probably don’t know that the Des Moines Public School (DMPS) system has never been part of the AEA system because they were exempted from the beginning in 1974. Under the Governor’s proposed plan, all of Iowa’s schools would have the opportunity to continue on as before, or to make their own choices like DMPS has from the beginning.

Another narrative that Iowans are being told is that the legislature is rushing this legislation through without careful analysis and thought. That’s simply not true. Once the final draft of the proposal is known, the legislature will begin the normal process of subcommittee hearings, vetting the proposal through the committee process, and finally considering it on the floor of the House and the Senate, amending the bill all through the process. The House and Senate must reach a final agreement before it goes downstairs to the Governor for her signature.

Through all of this our focus remains on the singular goal of providing the resources and services needed to effectively and efficiently teach more than half a million K-12 students in Iowa, to equip them to be successful. We need to that do better, and we should all agree on that objective.


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