A consultant’s report on Iowa’s Area Education Agencies suggests Iowans are paying considerably more than other states for special education but are getting less in terms of student achievement.
The study, which the governor’s office made public Monday, pertains to Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies. The AEAs provide special education services to schools throughout the state, as well as media supplies and services and professional training for teachers.
The Guidehouse consulting firm found that school districts are required by law to “cooperate” with AEAs in providing special education instructional programming, and that the AEAs exercise “vast control over the education of students with disabilities with little oversight from school districts and the Iowa Department of Education.”
Iowa spends $5,331 more per-pupil on special education than the national average, but Iowa’s students with disabilities perform below the national average, the consultants reported. Noting that the AEAs were created by statute to “be an effective, efficient, and economical means” of serving students with special-education needs, Guidehouse stated those same students are currently “struggling to reach academic proficiency in comparison to students with disabilities across the nation.”
In addition, federal annual performance audits show that Iowa’s AEAs are a factor in Iowa failing to comply with certain federal standards. In the report, Iowa is cited as one of only 13 states to be placed in the “needs assistance” category for two or more consecutive years in some areas of federal compliance.
The Iowa Department of Management hired Guidehouse last year to conduct a 50-state analysis of special-education achievement and educational service agencies, and to analyze the current state of Iowa’s special-education system, particularly the state’s AEAs. As part of its work, Guidehouse developed recommendations intended to improve student outcomes for all Iowa students, including those with disabilities.
In making recommendations for changes, Guidehouse stated that Iowa’s AEA system of special education “has not led to improved academic outcomes. Rather, academic outcomes from Iowa’s students with disabilities have declined over the last 20 years and are below average in comparison to the rest of the country.”
Specifically, Iowa students with disabilities have scored, on average, over 40 percentage points below the total student population in both English language arts and math on educational assessments. “Students with disabilities in Iowa scored below the national average, despite the state investing several thousand dollars more on a per pupil basis for special education students,” the report states.
In 2022, Iowa spent $14,387 per student on special education, while the national average was $9,056. Despite that additional investment, Iowa special-education student scores fell below the national average, with fourth graders ranked 41st nationally in reading and 32nd nationally in math, according to the report.
Guidehouse points out that although the AEAs collect their funding directly from the school districts in the regions they serve, school district personnel – including district superintendents – are prohibited from sitting on AEA boards of directors and they have no formal oversight of, or accountability over, the AEAs.
Based on its findings, Guidehouse made a series of recommendations:
Local Control: School districts should be allowed to opt out of the AEA’s system of providing special education and be given control as to how they use state and local funding to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Narrower focus: The AEAs should focus on students with disabilities rather than van delivery and media services such as printing.
Funding changes: By concentrating AEA services on special education, Iowa can then redirect the AEA money spent on media and professional development to school districts and the Iowa Department of Education to support special education and state oversight.
Accountability: Noting that the states that outperform Iowa in academic outcomes for students with disabilities have a chief education official with oversight of special education, Guidehouse calls for “additional state and local level governance and oversight mechanisms” to ensure the AEAs are meeting school districts’ needs.
The recommendations align with some of the comments Gov. Kim Reynolds made in her Condition of the State address earlier this month, in which she said each Iowa school should be able to “decide how best to meet the needs of their students.”
Reynolds said those schools that “like the services from their AEA” should be able to continue to use them, but those that want services from a neighboring AEA instead should be able to pursue that option or “go outside the AEA system” by hiring a private company deliver services such as speech or behavioral therapy.
The initial version of legislation Reynolds offered would have required the AEAs to focus only on special education services, eliminating the media services and professional development functions now provided. After that proposal met stiff resistance in the Iowa Legislature, Reynolds revised the bill.
Under the amended bill now being considered, the AEAs would be allowed to provide those other services, but only at the request of a school district. Other types of services that are unrelated to special education could only be provided with the approval of the Iowa Department of Education.
Families of special-needs children have spoken out in defense of AEA services.
At a Democratic news conference earlier in January, Kate Fairfax, a speech pathologist and mother, said AEAs have been a crucial support for raising her twin daughters, who were born prematurely. Agency staff assisted with ensuring that her daughters, Madeline and Audrey, were developing appropriately soon after they were born. Audrey suffered complications from brain bleeds that resulted in her being deaf and having cerebral palsy.
Fairfax said Audrey, who is 6, now has a physical therapist, occupational therapist, audiologist, special education consultant and teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing supporting her at school.
“I honestly don’t know what her day would look like if the AEA wasn’t there,” Fairfax said. “So I just know how important they are, and I hope everyone else knows that too.”
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said lawmakers were getting thousands of emails from Iowans across the state telling them about the positive impact AEAs have had in their families’ lives.
“We are not getting emails about the governor’s proposal to change and gut the AEAs,” Konfrst said. “We are getting no emails in support of that. There are no public comments that are in support of this on the bill. This is not something that anyone has asked for, this is something that Iowans are asking the governor to stop.”
In 2022, Reynolds used $994,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay Guidehouse for a report on how best to reorganize state government in Iowa. The governor’s reorganization plan was approved by the Legislature last year.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not respond to the Iowa Capital Dispatch’s questions this month about the cost of Guidehouse’s AEA study.
Robin Opsahl contributed to this report.
Iowa Special Education System Report_FINAL