The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa agencies delivering services for children who have disabilities face ‘full-blown overhaul’ under governor’s plan

The proposed overhaul blindsided some AEA administrators and has raised questions about its impact on the quality of services for children who have disabilities under the proposed changes.
Emily Nyberg
Colleen Elin a sepcial education specialist at Northwest Junior High in Coralville guides a student through an interactive book on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Michelle Elgin doesn’t know what she would have done without the services from the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids that her now-18-year-old son has relied on since he was six months old.

Elgin’s son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after birth, a condition that affected his development and ability to move on his own. He started receiving care through Grant Wood long before he started school in the Benton Community School District in Van Horne, Iowa, just 29 miles west of Cedar Rapids. Physical, speech, and occupational therapists, as well as other providers, visited her home in Vinton, Iowa, once a week.

On the evening of Jan. 9, as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered her annual Condition of the State Address, Elgin tuned in to hear the education portion of her speech. Elgin ended the video in disappointment after Reynolds unveiled a proposal that would curtail the services the agencies offer Iowa educators and families. Elgin stayed up until 1:30 a.m. that night, writing to her legislators urging them to not take up Reynolds’ call to action.

Grant Wood AEA has provided Benton School District with the equipment that Elgin’s son needs throughout his time there. This includes modified chairs and a bike so he can participate in physical education class. He communicates with others through his iPad, and providers from Grant Wood come into the school and educate teachers on the iPad’s uses.

“That was a godsend to have interventions before we had diagnoses … before we knew what was going on,” Elgin said.

During this time, her son received necessary and otherwise costly services from Grant Wood, as well as gracious cooperation between the agency and the school district.

Iowa’s AEAs are facing sweeping reforms, reorganizations, and restrictions under the new plan Reynolds proposed. During her annual address, Reynolds said growing dissatisfaction with AEAs from some school district superintendents fueled her plan to limit the services.

“We are simply giving control of the funding to those who work directly with your child on a daily basis, and we’re taking special education off autopilot, where it has been stuck for far too long,” Reynolds said during her address. “Once again, let’s drive transformational change and do what’s right for our children. Being able to read is a key component to every child’s success.”

AEAs were established in Iowa in 1974 after the Iowa Legislature passed Senate File 1163. The state funneled the 99 county Boards of Education, one for each county, into 15 AEAs spread across Iowa. Today, Iowa has nine AEAs that support Iowa’s 328 school districts. AEAs serve 72,672 students who have disabilities across the state.

AEAs provide support for digital resources, reading, math, and science curriculums for students who have disabilities. Nearly 80 percent of all state AEA budgets are dedicated to these services.

While Reynolds and proponents of the legislation argue the reforms will hold AEAs accountable and promote competition and improvements, critics decry the proposal as an attack on AEAs that could jeopardize the services that many Iowans rely on.

Defining the proposed changes

Under Reynolds’ proposal, services that families like the Elgins receive could be in jeopardy. The 124-page bill would alter the way AEAs receive funding, reorganize AEAs, limit AEAs to only providing education services for students who have disabilities, and create a new department at the Iowa Department of Education.

Reynolds said in a Jan. 18 news release that services like Early ACCESS, an early intervention system available for children with developmental needs from birth to age 3 years old, and Child Find, the AEAs’ responsibility to ensure eligible children receive their services, will continue.

However, the amendments announced in the news release have yet to be filed.

AEAs are currently funded in a “flow-through” method, where legislatively determined state funds and property tax dollars flow through school district budgets and then to their AEAs. Any funds generated by a school district specifically for AEAs are subtracted from what they would have received from the state, according to the AEA website.

Ryan Wise, dean of the Drake University School of Education and Iowa Department of Education director from July 2015 to March 2020, said he appreciated the Iowa Legislature for continually wanting to improve but advised caution on how Iowa should attempt change.

Public outcry prompts Reynolds to reel back

Rep. Sharon Sue Steckman, D-Mason City, said she had never seen so much opposition to a bill as she’s seen with the governor’s proposal to revamp AEAs. She said her inbox has been flooded with opposition from AEA employees, as well as parents and kids who’ve relied on them.

Steckman said Reynolds is seeing such a large backlash because “no one asked to have the governor dismantle our AEAs.”

After hearing feedback from Iowans, Reynolds amended the draft legislation, which was leaked on Jan. 29, to allow AEAs to provide general education services if requested by the school district and approved by the Iowa Department of Education.

Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley told KCCI news on Jan. 19 the legislators are trying to find a solution to achieve better results for students who have disabilities to give more accountability to school districts for funding.

“This gives the schools to be able to take that same level of money that existed the state and federal money and decide what is the best way for us to deliver those services for whatever school district they are,” he said.

AEAs ‘blindsided’ by proposal

John Speer, the chief administrator of the Grant Wood AEA, said AEAs were given no prior indications that Reynolds would be introducing a bill to reform the agencies.

“It was a full-blown overhaul of a system that has served families and schools really  well over the long haul … It’s economical, it’s efficient, it’s equitable,” Speer said. “We would think you’d be hard-pressed to find a system that would do those things as well.”

Speer said the agencies have heard interest in exploring ways to improve the systems, but the Iowa AEAs never expected a bill of this magnitude.

“We’re about getting better every day,” Speer said. “We would have been full partners in any effort to look at what we do to try to make it stronger, but it was certainly not that type of effort.”

Wise said during his time as the director of the Iowa Department of Education, AEAs are always looking to improve the services they provide, making Wise skeptical as to what sparked the need for this legislation.

“In my experience in working with the AEAs, they are very much striving to improve their effectiveness, their efficiency, and their impact,” Wise said. “I have not seen anything specific that would drive this chan

Grant Wood AEA provides services to Johnson County and six other surrounding counties — Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones, Linn, and Washington. Within these seven counties, Grant Wood AEA services 32 public school districts, as well as 15 state-accredited non-public schools, and 10 independent accredited non-public schools. The AEA provides education services to 9,823 students who have disabilities.

Plan could have a chilling effect on rural school budgets

Other critics fear Reynolds’ plan will have chilling effects on school budgets, specifically small, rural districts.

Speer said every school district that currently uses AEA services would be affected by this reformation.

Iowa’s AEAs purchased 29 online resources collectively for districts, and when buying those in bulk and bundling them together, it costs around $126,000. If school districts were forced to purchase those resources themselves, the total amount would come out to be $6 million when adding up the resources purchased by every school district, Speer said.

Speer said these resources are being heavily used as well. EBSCO is used as a research tool for students, and last year, students and staff of the Iowa City Community School District accessed this tool over 1 million times.

Wise said it would take time for districts to familiarize themselves with this new approach.

“I think it could pose some pretty significant challenges to schools, particularly rural schools in putting the burden on them to go and seek out services, to sift through potential providers,” Wise said.

Delocalizing AEA support

Speer, with Grant Wood AEA, does not believe having a centralized group in Des Moines attempting to visit districts periodically to deliver several services will do Iowans any good. Those services are better delivered locally, he said.

“We strive every day to improve teaching and learning and outcomes in Iowa. We have staff in every school district, in every building on a daily basis,” Speer said. “They know families, they know parents, they know kids, they know school district personnel are a trusted source.”

State Rep. Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, has experienced, through his older brother, the positive impacts of the services that Iowa’s AEAs provide. He credits the agencies for helping his brother overcome a speech impediment from a young age.

“I think my big concern is making sure that the kids keep getting the services that they deserve and that they need,” Zabner said. “I really feel bad for these parents whose kids rely on these services, and they’re really desperate to make sure that their kids continue to receive the services.”

Elgin said people don’t understand how expensive the services and equipment are if AEAs are not providing them. Through the money that funds AEAs, these things that are necessary for students are provided at no cost.

Elgin worries that students who have more needs than others won’t be able to be met with the same care if this proposal goes through because it’s so expensive.

Michelle said she believes it isn’t plausible for small, rural districts to hire a professional to take care of those needs, especially when close to no other student needs.

“He is the only kid in his school that needs what he needs … There’s no way that they would have someone who’s specialized in that kind of stuff that they would have on staff,” Elgin said.

Iowa’s AEAs are always willing to do better, Speer said, so the agencies would support getting a full body of stakeholders together to study the way services are delivered, but Reynolds’ proposal does not give that idea a chance.

“We just don’t think it’s a smart policy to force something to force change on the system, where the vast majority of providers and consumers of our products are very, very satisfied,” Speer said.

Elgin said AEAs provide critical resources to families like hers and drastically changing the system that has worked for so many years makes her worry about their future.

“There’s just so many more services that are involved with the AEA that, unless you have the misfortune of needing their services, you just have no idea,” Elgin said. “I honestly had no idea before I had him, but now to have essentially 18 years of close contact and working with them, I just feel like they’re a really big benefit to Iowa in general.”

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About the Contributors
Natalie Miller
Natalie Miller, Politics Reporter
Natalie Miller is a second-year student at the University of Iowa majoring in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to her position as a Politics Reporter, Natalie was a News Reporter focusing on Higher Education.
Emily Nyberg
Emily Nyberg, Visual Editor
Emily Nyberg is a second-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic arts. Prior to her role as a Visual Editor, Emily was a Photojournalist, and a News Reporter covering higher education.