AEA Overhaul Would Dismantle Services Rural Schools Depend On, Says Local AEA Chief

Casey Jarmes
The News-Review

DES MOINES – On Ja. 9, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds gave her yearly Condition of the State Address, during which she proposed massive overhauls to how Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies (AES) function. The AEAs were created in 1975 to provide special education services, but have since expanded to also provide professional development for teachers, instructional services in literacy, math and science, and digital resources for schools. Reynolds stated that AEAs were “top heavy organizations with high administrative costs” who had grown “beyond their core mission.” The governor’s initial plan proposed having AEAs focus solely on special ed and prohibiting all other services. According to Nathan Wood, chief administrator of Great Prairie AEA, which covers Southeast Iowa, this would be devastating towards rural schools.

“The remarks at the Condition of the State and the specifics of House Study Bill 542 are much more significant than we anticipated, and they truly do dismantle a lot of services our rural school districts depend on every single day,” said Wood.

Wood explained that, under the initial bill, schools would prohibit the agencies from providing consultation or support for math or literacy, even if requested by schools. This aspect of the bill was walked back by the governor on Jan. 18, when Reynolds released an amended proposal, following heavy backlash. The ultimate fate of Iowa’s AEAs will be decided by the state legislature, who are currently debating the bill. According to Wood, the original version of the bill would have also resulted in more than 1,000 educators being laid off across the state.

Reynolds’s proposal will change AEAs from being funded on a per-student basis to being funded on a per service provided basis, with schools given the option to use money formerly given to AEAs to instead either hire private companies to provide service or create their own programs. The governor sees this as a way to hand control back to local schools. “Schools and parents know their students best, and this bill ensures they are in the driver’s seat in deciding how best to support their students,” said the governor. “This model will give schools control over their money and create more transparency in the system, while also ensuring AEAs can provide the education support some schools rely on.”

Wood noted that many rural communities do not have access to needed services, except through AEAs. According to Wood, one of the largest issues AEA’s face is a lack of applicants, with there being a higher demand for practitioners than available practitioners. Wood worries that having different entities compete for workers could worsen the shortage. Wood also noted that needing to hire private companies and create their own programs will add new administrative costs placed on school districts, who will not receive extra funding for those costs.

“Coming from rural Iowa as a teacher, principal, superintendent in small schools, we already face staffing shortages in our schools,” said Wood. “With the removal of education services and media, I believe that rural schools will struggle the most to meet the needs of their kids and lack community resources to supplant the AEA services if they’re eliminated or prohibited.”

Reynolds has criticized the AEAs for being ineffective, arguing that Iowa students with disabilities ranked 30th or lower on national reading and math assessments. Wood called this a mischaracterization, pointing out that the test cited by Reynolds was taken by a sample of 266 out of Iowa’s more than 72,000 special ed students. “We always need to improve,” said Wood. “AEA leadership across the state made it known to the governor, early this Summer, that we are open to reform and making some changes. We haven’t had the opportunity to meet with the governor or her team to talk about the best way to make those changes.”

Wood stated that the AEA needs to become more efficient in terms of overhead, by consolidating office space and leadership positions, and work on increasing the efficiency of services provided. “We also believe, though, that we staff districts more efficiently than will happen in the new proposal,” said Wood. “For example, we may have a staff member who works in Pekin, Sigourney, Tri-County and Keota all in the same week. If a district were to hire those people, they would either have to work together, or potentially hire multiple people to do this work that one person is doing for multiple districts now.”

Wood graduated from Sigourney High School in 2003 and worked as a special education and science teacher at Sigourney, principal at Pekin and superintendent at Montezuma before being put in charge of the Great Prairie AEA. Since the governor’s speech, he has been meeting with legislators to curtail the proposed cuts. Wood noted that legislators have received an “alarmingly large number of communications” from constituents. “I believe the amendment will probably include some of the thing’s we’ve brought up as negative losses if the bill was passed as written, but I still expect the bill to have some really negative or high arcing swings at services that are provided. I still think it will eliminate services that school districts like Sigourney, Pekin, Tri-County and Keota really depend on every day,” said Wood.

Wood was shocked at how little time the bill, which is set to go into effect in July of this year, gives schools to adjust to these sweeping changes. Depending on when the bill is signed, school districts could have as little as 90 or 120 days to fully implement a new plan. “They’re saying that’s not doable,” said Wood. “We don’t know what the best decisions are to make for our district, because there’s not been the time to really analyze and make good decisions.”

“Education is an investment in the future of our society. The proposed bill, by undermining the quality of education and support services, jeopardizes the future success and well-being of our children. It is imperative to consider the long-term consequences and work towards a solution that prioritizes the needs of our students, families, and educators,” said Wood.




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