By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to reform the Area Education Agency (AEA) system prompted the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt to send out an action alert to oppose the sweeping changes.
The AEA system, nine regional entities created in the 1970s to provide special education support to school districts, have grown beyond their core mission, Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address Jan. 9. Today, the AEA system provides special education, media and professional development services to public and private school staff and students, said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC).
While the regional system makes sense, Reynolds said, “… our school districts are forced to give their special-education funding to the AEAs. This mandate leaves little room for accountability.” Conversations with parents, teachers, school administrators and AEA staff make it clear that while some AEAs are doing great work, others are underperforming, she said. The result is “top-heavy organizations with high administrative costs.”
Meanwhile, “Iowa students with disabilities are performing well below the national average. In the last five years, they’ve ranked 30th or worse on 9 of 12 national assessments. Yet, Iowa spends over $5,300 dollars more per-pupil on special education than the national average,” Reynolds said.
Under her proposal to the Iowa Legislature, HSB 542 would give control of special education dollars to public school districts instead of AEAs and eliminate all other AEA services. The AEAs would focus “solely on students with disabilities” and the Department of Education would assume oversight.
School districts could choose to work with their AEA or another AEA or “contract with a private company or partner with other districts to share a speech or behavioral therapist. Or they can spend more on special education teachers and put the dollars right in their classrooms,” Reynolds said. She emphasized that her proposal does not reduce special education spending. “We are simply giving control of the funding to those who work directly with your child on a daily basis…”
“This proposed legislation would be especially detrimental to St. Joseph School (in DeWitt), as well as other accredited nonpublic and rural public school districts, including Central DeWitt,” Father Stephen Page, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, wrote in an Jan. 13 email. He noted that attached to the proposed bill “is an increase in public school teachers’ pay. The minimum salary would be raised from $33,500 to $50,000. Teachers with more than 12 years of experience would receive $60,000.”
Father Page requested that Iowans who oppose the dismantling of the AEA system “contact our state legislators … to ask that the current AEA structure and funding continue. The AEAs are complex and comprehensive in the services and support they provide to accredited nonpublic and public school districts, especially those in rural areas.”
Elimination of the AEAs, which has not been proposed, would have a significant impact on school budgets and “would also make it difficult for some accredited nonpublic schools to continue to exist,” Father Page said. “Public school districts would struggle as well.”
He advised Iowans in support of AEAs to focus their advocacy on education and media services that the AEA provides to schools, such as St. Joseph. The Mississippi Bend AEA serves the DeWitt schools as well as other public and private schools in Clinton, Scott and Muscatine counties and parts of Cedar, Jackson and Louisa counties.
Among AEA services that teachers and staff utilize at St. Joseph School are social worker, English language learners support, academic consultants, science curriculum, preschool consultants, online professional development, computer science, fine arts, talented and gifted and AEA purchasing (technology and other items).
Special education services that the school utilizes include deaf and hard of hearing teacher, assistive technology, social worker, speech/language, and occupational and physical therapists. “The abbreviated list indicates the AEA’s outreach to students, teachers, staff and parents,” Father Page wrote.
The proposed legislation “is very devastating,” said Lynne Devaney, diocesan Superintendent of Schools. The AEA, for example, provides Fiber Optic network capabilities that are essential for the technology infrastructure in accredited nonpublic and public schools. “The unintended consequences of the proposed legislation are still being discovered.”
“Review of AEA merits opportunity for input from families whose children benefit from services, the professionals that provide services in addition to professionals with an eye for enhanced fiscal efficiencies,” said Deacon Kent Ferris, diocesan director of Social Action. “Public input enhances political debate. Diverse perspectives are invaluable when maintaining the common good.”
Responding to The Catholic Messenger’s question about the AEA proposal and proposed teacher salary increases, Chapman said, “The ICC is in the process of gathering feedback on the AEA bill from Catholic school leaders and public school supporters on our board and committees. We are pleased to see that the work of teachers is being valued by the increase in minimum salaries for public school teachers. That will present a challenge for Catholic schools in keeping up.”