Iowans like AEAs, but Republicans are ramming through controversial reforms anyway

Sen. Molly Donahue (D-Cedar Rapids) speaks out against a bill to bring large changes to Iowa's Area Education Associations. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

By Ty Rushing

March 18, 2024

Sen. Molly Donahue (D-Cedar Rapids) questioned her colleagues on why they were moving forward with enacting major legislative changes to Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs), a plan most Iowans don’t see the need for.

“Nobody wanted this bill. Nobody asked for this bill. No one campaigned on this bill all across the state,” Donahue said during Monday’s Iowa Senate debate on the AEA legislation.

The bill passed through the chamber amid mixed support from Senate Republicans. The final vote was 28-22 with Republicans Waylon Brown, Mike Klimesh, Mark Lofgren, Charlie McClintock, Sandy Salmon, and Jeff Taylor joining all Senate Democrats in opposing the bill.

“AEAs are loved by Iowans because they are good at what they do,” said Sen. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines), who noted two of her children directly benefited from AEA services.

A recent Des Moines Register poll found that 56% of Iowans had a favorable view of AEAs, while 24% were not sure, and 20% held unfavorable views. Petersen noted AEAs have higher favorability ratings than all of Iowa’s elected officials tested in the poll.

Making major changes to AEAs has been one of the top legislative priorities for Gov. Kim Reynolds this session. Her initial proposal—which was based on an out-of-state report and without much guidance from Iowa stakeholders—was not well received.

AEAs were formed in the 1970s to provide educational equity throughout Iowa via nine regional service providers. Under current law, Iowa school districts allocate state and federal special education dollars to AEAs—AEAs also have property tax levies—and in return, AEAs provide a wide array of services to districts, including hearing services, physical therapy, speech-language services, and more.

Some of the imminent concerns about making wholesale changes to AEAs is that rural districts wouldn’t receive the same level of services they receive currently because so many of them are housed in urban areas, and a deep concern is that this is another step toward privatizing education in Iowa following last year’s private school tuition bill.

The Senate was set to debate the Iowa House version of the AEA bill, but Sen. Lynn Evans (R-Aurelia) introduced a strike after amendment and essentially replaced the House legislation with the Senate Republicans’ version, which is a modified version of Reynolds’ bill.

Starting in July 2025, the Senate’s version ships a lot of the AEAs’ responsibility—and some personnel—to a newly formed Division of Special Education that would be part of the Iowa Department of Education. The department would also oversee AEAs.

The Senate bill would also eventually transfer all special education and media funding to districts and allow them to decide whether to contract with AEAs for those services. The bill also caps AEA director salaries to 125% of the average salary of all superintendents of the school districts that are located within the boundaries of the AEA district.

The Senate’s legislation also includes a pay raise for Iowa teachers; however, the House passed a standalone bill to give teachers raises that are not tied to the AEA bill. 

Arguing against the bill, Democratic lawmakers said legislators received thousands of messages from Iowans who didn’t support the legislation. 

“I have served in the legislature for a very long time and I cannot think of a single issue that I have received this much mail by Iowans who are deeply concerned about what the governor plans to do to unravel AEAs—she’s basing in completely on a false premise,” Petersen said. 

On the Republican side, Sen. Jesse Green (R-Boone) read a letter he said came from a veteran teacher in his district who supported major changes to AEAs. The teacher in Green’s letter did not feel that AEA staff were held to the same standards as day-to-day classroom teachers.

Evans, a former public school district superintendent, said this bill is about ensuring students with disabilities receive great services and the goal is to get the “best return on investment for the most efficient delivery of special ed services.”

“Schools deserve to have more transparency and accountability for how their special education funding is spent,” Evans said, discounting the publicly available budgets of AEA districts and that the boards are elected by local school boards. “This bill provides them with more local control based on the spending on the unique needs of students in their districts.”

The bill is set to go back to the Iowa House and the two sides have not agreed on the parameters of what should be in the AEA bill. In a statement after the debate, Gov. Reynolds said she would try to bring the sides together.

“I now look forward to working with the House and Senate to reach a compromise that will bring transparency, accountability, and consistency to the AEA system while most importantly improving outcomes for students with disabilities,” Reynolds said. “At the same time, we must recognize the important role of teachers in the classroom by increasing minimum salaries for both starting and experienced teachers.”

During the debate, an exasperated Sen. Bill Dotzler (D-Waterloo) summed up his thoughts on the AEA bill and other legislation that the majority party continues to pass out of the Senate.

“This bill adds one more car to the crazy train of bills that has come out of this chamber and you’re pulling a lot of cars,” Dotzler said.

  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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