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Iowa House and Senate Republicans unveil their own plans for Area Education Agencies

Alternatives to Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposed overhaul of special education have emerged in both the Iowa House and Senate.
Grant Gerlock
Alternatives to Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposed overhaul of special education have emerged in both the Iowa House and Senate.

The Iowa House has introduced a new proposal for the state’s Area Education Agencies that makes major changes compared to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed overhaul.

Reynolds introduced sweeping changes to the AEA system at the start of the session, then released a scaled back version of the plan after receiving strong feedback from parents and educators.

At the center of her plan, Reynolds proposed flexibility for local districts to use special education funding to contract for services outside of their local AEA, if they choose. Her plan featured stricter controls over the AEAs at the Iowa Department of Education and a $35 million cut in property tax funding for media services at the AEAs. Those services include printing class materials and lending curriculum packages to schools.

A three-year plan unveiled Wednesday by House leadership (HSB 713) would not cut any money or services from the AEA system.

Starting with the 2025-26 school year, school districts could choose where to spend their funding for media services. Then in the 2026-27 school year, schools could also decide to branch out with their education services funding to hire a different provider.

Throughout the process, though, school districts would be required to spend their special education funding with their local AEA as they do now.

“We wanted to provide certainty for special education,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “The feedback that we got from Iowans is the special ed services — whether they’re perfect, they need improvement, in some cases some people are unsatisfied — they wanted a level of certainty in those special ed services and the delivery mechanism. That’s why we kept it in there going forward through the AEAs.”

What would change, Grassley said, is that state funding for special education would no longer automatically pass through school districts to the AEAs. It would stop at the district first. Even though a school district could not shop around for special ed services, it would still have to work out what the costs and payments would be for the services they receive.

“One of the things that no one’s been able to share with us whether it's from the administrative side or the AEA side, nobody can sit down and say, ‘This is what the school district paid for that service for this student,’” Grassley said. “This system, in my opinion, really sheds a light on what the cost is to deliver the services.”

The House bill keeps a scaled down version of Reynolds’ plan to make a new division to oversee special education at the Iowa Department of Education. Instead of hiring 139 staffers, Grassley said the House plan would involve hiring five employees to be located in each of the nine AEA regions to provide oversight as well as 13 more to be based at the department office in Des Moines.

It would also limit the salaries for AEA chief administrators to an average of what the superintendents within their regions are earning.

The bill was introduced Wednesday and Grassley said Republicans plan to advance it at a meeting of the House Education Committee Thursday in order to meet the legislative funnel deadline.

Gov. Reynolds responded to the new bill introduced by the House GOP with a brief statement.

“I appreciate that we will be able to continue the conversation,” she said.

Grassley said the conversation about AEAs would not end with the House bill. It would also create a task force to study the services offered at different AEAs, the properties they own and how special education students are doing academically.

“We're going to have a study that's legislatively led, so we feel we can bring all parties to the table in a fair way,” Grassley said.

Increasing teacher pay

The House is separating the issue of teacher pay from the AEA bill. In a separate proposal, the House GOP will look to raise the minimum salary for new teachers to $50,000, which is the same as Reynolds proposed, but it would happen over two years. In the first year, the minimum salary would go up from $33,500 to $47,500. The second year it would land at $50,000.

The bill does not set a new minimum for educators with 12 years of experience as Reynolds would, but it does include $14 million to support pay increases for classroom support staff.

“Our caucus felt very strongly about support staff, especially looking at not just all support staff but really looking at your in-the-classroom paraeducators and others that we know our school districts are struggling to find right now and retain,” he said.

Grassley said increasing the minimum for new teachers will ripple through school districts’ pay scales. Enacting the change over two years allows time for them to make plans and adjust their budgets.

In the end, Grassley said he expects the amount of new funding to be similar to what Reynolds had proposed except it would be spread out differently between teacher pay and a larger increase in state funding for public schools. The House is proposing a 3% increase compared to the governor’s proposal of 2.5%.

Senate Education Committee passes its own alternative

Senate Republicans are putting forward their own substitute for Gov. Reynolds’ proposed overhaul of Iowa’s AEA system.

Under an amended bill passed by the Senate Education Committee Wednesday night (SSB 3073), school districts would be given control over how to spend 90% of their state special education funding while 10% would go directly to their local AEA.

In a similar way, districts could decide how to spend 60% of state funding for media and education services, but their AEA would be guaranteed at least 40% of the state funding in those categories.

Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Aurelia, told lawmakers on the committee that the funding split provides a safety net for the AEA system even if some districts opt out.

“Everything provided by the AEAs will continue to be provided by the AEAs, and we have reestablished funding that the governor stripped out,” Evans said.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said she's concerned the plan could leave both sides stranded without the resources they need.

“The system we have with our AEAs is working,” Celsi said. “To come in here with a bulldozer like this — it’s not fair, it’s not necessary and the people in our state do not want this.”

Under the Senate bill the AEA directors would be required to submit plans for reducing administrative costs by 30% and to make detailed reports of the services provided for each district. Each AEA would have to report on its progress toward closing the proficiency gap for students in special education.

The Senate bill includes a reset of the minimum salary for new teachers at $46,251 dollars, which Evans said was an average of starting teacher pay offered by schools districts around the state. It’s less, though, than $50,000 as proposed by both the governor and the House GOP.

Evans said the difference would allow for a larger increase than Reynolds had proposed for state school funding.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa