Iowa’s Capitol has been under construction on the exterior as officials work to reorganize state government from the inside. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Many of the opponents of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to modify the states’ Area Education Agencies asked Wednesday in a House subcommittee for more time to study the problems raised by some school districts an a consultant hired by the governor’s office.
The members of the House subcommittee heard them, at least for now. Rep. Skyler Wheeler, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the bill would not move forward from the subcommittee on Wednesday.
“We’re going to have further conversations on it. So we’re going to absorb the feedback in the subcommittee and continue to have conversations on it. But no, I’m not moving it forward at this time,” he said.
The Senate Education Committee was scheduled to hold a subcommittee meeting on the bill Wednesday afternoon.
During the House meeting, Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, displayed a thick stack of paper that she said were comments she has received on the legislation. “Every one that I have received has said ‘slow down,’ like many of you in here have said, ‘What’s the hurry to fix a 50-year-old system in two days, or one week or whatever time.”
Lawmakers heard public comments Wednesday on the amended version of Reynolds’ proposal to modify the state’s system of Area Education Agencies providing services for children with disabilities.
The legislation, Senate Study Bill 3073 and House Study Bill 542, is a more than 100-page-long proposal making significant changes to Iowa’s nine AEAs, the organizations tasked with providing services to Iowans with special needs from birth through age 21.
Reynolds named her AEA proposal as a top priority for the 2024 legislative session in her Condition of the State speech earlier in January. But in the weeks since, many Iowans have spoken in opposition to the proposal, saying that it could mean fewer resources available or worse outcomes for students with disabilities across the state and praising the services AEAs have provided for their families.
In a news conference Tuesday, the governor defended the legislation, saying Iowa’s current system has resulted in lower scores for students with disabilities at a higher cost to taxpayers.
A report from the Guidehouse consulting firm on AEAs found Iowa spends $5,331 more per-pupil on special education than the national average, but that special-education students’ scores fell below the national average. Iowa 4th grade students with special needs ranked 41st in reading and 32nd in math according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress results.
These poor educational results for Iowa students with disabilities have been occurring for years, the governor said.
“We know what the results are, for 20 years, we’ve known what the results are,” Reynolds said. “We know that $529 million is going to an AEA, that there is absolutely no accountability to, that nobody knows what the cost of those services are. Do you think that’s okay? You’re a taxpayer? No, I don’t think that’s okay. These are questions that should be answered.”
Some of the speakers at the House subcommittee, including several Iowa superintendents, agreed. “We do not discount these dedicated AEA special education service providers who work side by side with our staff in support of our students,” Council Bluffs Superintendent Vickie Murillo said. “This is about utilizing the funding so that we can efficiently align the work to meet the needs — the individual needs — of our students.”
Other school district officials, including Waukee Superintendent Brad Buck, questioned whether the Department of Education could implement the changes and replicate the infrastructure quickly enough to avoid a gap in services. Buck, a former director of the department, called the timeline “unrealistic” and “irresponsible.”
The bill, in its amended form, would give school districts control of the federal funding currently allotted directly to AEAs in order to provide services for students with special education needs. While AEAs would still be mandated to provide services as requested in their areas of coverage if requested by the school district, schools could also seek contracts with private companies to meet the specialized support needs of students with disabilities, such as time with a speech pathologist, physical therapist or psychologist required by their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
The legislation would also direct the state Department of Education to provide more oversight and control over AEAs. Each of the agencies would be under the supervision of Iowa Department of Education director McKenzie Snow, with agency Boards of Directors taking on an advisory role. The legislation would also terminate the nine current AEA directors and charge Snow with appointing new directors.
The department would conduct a yearly review of the entire staffing structure of the AEA, with Snow having the ability to eliminate positions as deemed necessary – including the ability to dissolve or consolidate agencies. Within the department, the Division of Special Education would take over many of the oversight duties currently administered internally by the AEAs.
The state plans to staff the division with 139 employees – a significant reduction from the 400 employees providing oversight at AEAs now. Reynolds said that these position eliminations will result in $21 million in savings that will go toward the state’s education funding, “to the districts and into the classroom.”
People whose positions would be eliminated under the change would be given a hiring preference within the education department. The governor also said that schools across the state are in need of staff, and that there are many opportunities for former AEA employees to stay in the Iowa education system.
Reynolds said the oversight changes are necessary to ensure that educational outcomes improve for Iowa students with disabilities.
“You can’t police yourself, get all the money mandated I use (on) you and not be held accountable when the scores are not reflecting what they should be,” Reynolds said. “That’s unconscionable. And there should be, every Iowan out there should be just talking with their school board and superintendents and saying, ‘why wouldn’t you want that money?’ And why wouldn’t you be asking these questions to see if I could maybe do better, if I could maybe bring more of the services in-house or if I could maybe pay my special education teachers more so that I’m not competing with an AEA?”
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