Iowa needs more thoughtful, inclusive approach to AEA reform

Dr. Andy Crozier is superintendent of the Central Lee Community School District. Author photo provided courtesy of the district.

I am writing to express my concerns about Governor Kim Reynolds’ recent announcement regarding the proposed reform of the Area Education Agency (AEA) system during her Condition of the State speech.

The suggested changes include moving AEAs under the Iowa Department of Education, narrowing their focus to special education, and allowing school districts to decide whether to opt into AEA services.

Educators across the state have been anticipating adjustments to the AEA system for several months, but the governor’s proposal for a substantial overhaul in the near future has surprised many.

During my three-year tenure as a school leader at Grant Wood AEA, I gained valuable insights into the AEA system’s pivotal role in driving innovation, supporting systems thinking, and fostering leadership beyond traditional educational institutions. This provided an exceptional learning experience, fostering enduring relationships with schools and educators that continue to benefit both myself and my school district.

The broad array of services—including assistive technology, science kits, and college-for-kids programming—greatly enriched our schools and students. My experience in the AEA system not only enhanced my capacity for innovation, systems thinking, and leadership, but also exposed me daily to a wide range of impactful services for schools. During the three years I served as an AEA employee, I was amazed at how many services AEAs provided to public and private schools.

Currently, the extensive services provided by AEAs to Central Lee and surrounding schools go beyond special education, including support for career and technical education programming, eRate funding, school improvement initiatives, professional development, and more. While Central Lee is not small, leveraging AEA resources has allowed us to save significant funds that would otherwise come out of our operating budget.

Reflecting on gaps in AEA services if the governor’s bill passes, I remember the unwavering support AEAs provided during challenging times, such as the loss of a student in a tragic car accident last summer. The AEA’s commitment to supporting our school district, leaders, and students—even on a Sunday, off contract—showed a dedication to being there whenever crises arise.

During the uncertainties of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago, school districts faced a lack of answers from the state and Department of Education. Stepping up to fill this void were the AEAs, coordinating resources, meetings, and collaboration among school districts for enhanced statewide support. Their proactive approach included seeking answers beyond their designated responsibilities, providing considerable assistance to district leaders navigating the uncertainties of the time.

In recent years, the Department of Education has issued numerous directives for data tools and professional development. The AEA plays a crucial role in delivering this training and providing ongoing support for districts. The AEA system is essential for both public and private schools to progress, and I have doubts about the Department of Education’s ability to handle this work in the future without significant costs for third-party vendors.

Although the governor claimed that educators advocate for redirecting AEA flow-through dollars, I find that challenging to believe. A more constructive approach to AEA reform involves a comprehensive study with input from educators, AEA staff, legislators, and stakeholders. Drastically overhauling the system as proposed is unlikely to enhance it and risks causing its demise over the next several years.

I am grateful for the experiences that shaped me as part of an AEA. This system has been instrumental in my growth, contributing to my development as a leader through collaborative meetings, professional development, and support during challenging times. During the completion of my dissertation, AEA staff provided invaluable support, keeping me on track.

The AEA system consistently focuses on serving Iowa’s public and private schools, fulfilling required services while responding to unique needs for improvement. I urge a more thoughtful and inclusive approach to reform that considers the insights of educators, AEA staff, legislators, and community members to ensure the continued success of our educational system.

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: The governor’s office announced on January 18 plans to amend the bill, to allow AEAs to “provide general education services and media services if requested by schools and approved by the Department of Education.” On January 19, Reynolds released an open letter to Iowans on improving special education, which stated in part,

As the AEAs expanded their services, the outcomes of students with disabilities declined. Over the last 20 years, Iowa’s fourth grade students with disabilities have consistently performed below the national average when compared to students with disabilities in other states. In the last five years, fourth and eighth graders with disabilities have ranked 30th or lower on nine of 12 national reading and math assessments. 

Despite consistently poor outcomes, under the current system schools are forced to send their state and federal money for special education services directly to the AEAs. Iowa is the only state in the nation that operates this way.

Bleeding Heartland sought comment from Superintendent Crozier on the governor’s letter. He replied via email:

“The Department of Education already holds meaningful oversight of the AEA system through a rigorous accreditation process. The governor is proposing the Department of Education take total control of the AEA system, which would significantly expand the department and its responsibilities. Doing so consolidates more power for the governor and the state government as a whole. It is the complete opposite of what the governor proposed last year with a realignment of government services.

“Additionally, AEAs have worked diligently to separate the work staff members conduct based on how they are funded to ensure they maximize the use of federal and state revenue. The expansion of services is a response to the requests of school districts. With any service organization, we should be proud our AEAs are responsive to the needs of public and private schools. 

“The continuous changes to the governor’s proposal make it even more clear that a study of the AEA system should be the first step in any successful reform effort. To wipe the system clean and rebuild it is a hasty and unnecessary move that will negatively impact students and schools across Iowa.”

About the Author(s)

Andy Crozier

  • Excellent title for this post...

    …and what Iowa really needs is a much “more thoughtful, inclusive” governor.

  • this is the whole point

    “Doing so consolidates more power for the governor and the state government as a whole.” as with the teacher pay scheme they are seeking to discipline labor and shift resources (including tax-breaks and related austerity measures) to the chosen few at the expense of the rest of us.
    The Gov keeps telling the press that anything she doesn’t support is “unsustainable” and they dutifully pass that along to us without ever asking her why not and or adding to their coverage that of course they could be sustained by raising (or in some cases just maintaining) taxes .