What are AEAs and why is Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds trying to overhaul the special ed agencies?

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Samantha Hernandez, Galen Bacharier, and, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register

Gov. Kim Reynolds‘ plans to overhaul how Iowa public school districts receive special education services have thrust the state’s nine Area Education Agencies into the spotlight.  

Reynolds announced during her Condition of the State address in early January her intention to introduce legislation that would change how Area Education Agencies — or AEAs — operate, offer services and receive funding.  

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Since releasing the bill Jan. 30, it has undergone a major amendment after public feedback and will likely continue to see changes as lawmakers in both the House and Senate express concerns.  The Senate version, SSSB 3073, advanced last week out of a subcommittee. The House version, HSB 542, has stalled.

But what are Iowa’s Area Education Agencies, and why are they under a microscope? Here’s what you need to know: 

What is an Area Education Agency (AEA)?

Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies — Northwest, Prairie Lakes, Central Rivers, Keystone, Mississippi Bend, Grant Wood, Heartland, Green Hills and Great Prairie — are tasked with providing special education and other services to public and accredited private schools across the state.  

Iowa established the agencies in 1974 following a “need for equal access to services” and federal legislation that focused on programming for students with disabilities in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a 2018 Legislative Services Agency report. 

Funding for the AEAs comes from property taxes and school districts’ federal and state special education funds. 

What services do Iowa AEAs offer? 

The agencies provide a long list of services including academic and social emotional behavior support, inputting individualized education program data, assistive technology and occupational therapy for students. The agencies are also available to aid families and offer professional development opportunities for educators.  

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Additionally, the AEAs offer crisis management teams for school districts that experience a tragedy or death. Most recently, Heartland AEA sent dozens of people to help with recovery efforts at Perry Community School District following a deadly shooting.  

The agencies also contract with schools to provide professional trainings for teachers, free digital resources and media services, such as graphic design and printing, that some districts can’t produce in-house. 

An AEA can also help school districts do “cooperative purchasing” to help lower the cost of items, said Cindy Yelick, Heartland AEA’s chief administrator.  

The services Iowa’s nine AEAs offer differ by region depending on need, Yelick said. Members of AEAs and Iowa Department of Education officials can also request new services be added. 

How many people do AEAs employ? 

There are more than 3,400 full-time and part-time staff employed across all nine AEAs, according to a summary of personnel compiled by the agencies and provided to the Register. 

The largest AEA by staff is the Heartland AEA, which employs 755 full-time and part-time staffers; the smallest is Prairie Lakes AEA, which employs 244. 

Where are AEA facilities located? 

All nine AEAs lease or own a combined 50-plus building spaces across the state, many of which are offices and some of which are contained within school buildings. 

Under Reynolds’ bill, the Department of Administrative Services could take over authority of those spaces, and the AEAs would not be allowed to hold real property or enter into lease-purchase agreements. 

Subcommittee members Skyler Wheeler (left) and Sharon Steckman (right) listen as Iowans voice their opinions on HSB 542 Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Iowa State Capitol.

How would Gov. Kim Reynolds’ amended bill change AEAs and their services?  

The governor’s proposal would give all school districts in Iowa the choice of whether to continue contracting with their local AEA for special education and other services, or to discontinue their contract with the AEA and instead seek an alternative provider in the private sector for special education, professional training or other services. 

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The agencies would also fall under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Education under the bill, giving the governor broad authority over them. The boards of directors that currently govern AEAs would be relegated to an “advisory” role. 

Under the amended bill, AEAs would still be able to provide special education services and services related to professional development, media services and help as requested by a school district.  

What would take the place of AEAs under the legislation?  

Under the proposed legislation, school districts would be able to contract with an AEA or private sector companies outside the district to help students receive support.  

Shortly after Reynolds’ announced the legislation, the Iowa Department of Education posted 29 job openings for its new Division of Special Education. The division is expected to have an estimated 139 employees ranging from a division director to consultants who focus on students with disabilities’ IEPs.  

The new division is meant to provide oversight for special education services in districts around the state, Reynolds has said. 

How many AEA staff could be affected by Reynolds’ bill? 

According to a summary of staffing provided by the AEAs, an estimated 906 employees (full time and part time) would be affected by the governor’s overhaul bill. 

It’s not clear what would happen to those staff, whether it mean layoffs or transferring to another AEA or department. 

Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Liaison Molly Severn speaks during a hearing on HSB 542 Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Iowa State Capitol.
Why does Gov. Kim Reynolds want to overhaul AEAs?  

During her Condition of the State speech, Reynolds said the AEAs have operated “without meaningful oversight” and have grown beyond their original mission of providing special education supports for school districts.  

Reynolds said Iowa’s special education students underperform academically when compared with their peers nationally and cited that as a reason for the proposed legislation. 

AEA officials say the blame for low standardized test scores is not easy to place, with students working with AEA staff, school district staff and general education teachers. 

“Our students in special education as defined by standardized test scores — so NAEP and others — aren’t scoring where I think any of us would like them to be,” said Stan Rheingans, Keystone AEA chief administrator. “And so we collaborate with districts, the Department of Ed — who helps set some of those visions — to try to improve those scores.” 

What is the status of Reynolds’ AEA bill?

Reynolds’ proposal received subcommittee hearings in both the House and Senate last week.  

The trio of House lawmakers assigned to the bill declined to advance it, citing a need for “further conversation.” In comments to reporters Thursday, Speaker of the House Pat Grassley said those discussions continue and would likely result in changes to the bill. 

“We’re obviously going to use some of the framework that the governor laid out, but we also want to sit down with the stakeholders and see what pieces maybe we can do that fit,” Grassley said. 

Clear Creek Amana Superintendent Corey Seymour speaks during a hearing on HSB 542 Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at the Iowa State Capitol.

A Senate panel advanced the amended bill for consideration in front of a full committee but stipulated that further changes would have to be made. 

Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.

Galen Bacharier covers politics for the Register. Reach him at [email protected] or (573) 219-7440, and follow him on Twitter @galenbacharier.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.

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