Governor's AEA plan would harm Iowa children, families, and school districts

David Tilly is a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. He gave Bleeding Heartland permission to publish a letter he emailed to all Iowa state legislators on January 24 regarding Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposed changes to Area Education Agencies. The governor’s bill has been introduced as Senate Study Bill 3073 and House Study Bill 542.

An open letter to Iowa State Senators and Representatives regarding the AEA System:

My name is David Tilly and I was the Deputy Director at the Iowa Department of Education (IDE) between 2012 and 2020. I administered the state education budget for PK-12 Education at the IDE during those years, and I managed all of the Department’s PK-12 programs and staff. I am a special educator by training (my Ph.D. is in School Psychology) and I worked for over 30 years in Iowa at all levels of the education system. Through these experiences, I learned quite a bit about how Iowa’s education system works.

I have analyzed SSB3073/HSB542 (changes to AEAs) carefully and I will begin my comments with the punchline: If implemented as written, these bills will harm Iowa children, families and small school districts.

Much of the rhetoric supporting the need for this legislation is not accurate at best, and misleading at worst. A few examples:

1. Claim: AEAs are not accountable. Fact: AEAs do have accountability. Ted Stilwill when he was Director of the Department of Education worked with the legislature to create an accreditation process for AEAs that is written in Iowa Code and Administrative Rule that directs the AEAs which services they must provide and how they must provide them. The Department of Education’s School Improvement team audits these services in AEAs regularly. And this process has teeth. Under my leadership, with support from the State Board of Education, the Department of Education between 2017 and 2019 placed an AEA on conditional accreditation (one step before dissolving them) because they were not meeting accreditation standards. AEAs have been sanctioned multiple times in their history, and have always corrected deficiencies when directed to.

2. Claim: AEAs have wandered from their original mission. Fact: AEA services expanded over the years, but that was due to 2 things: 1. direction from the legislature and 2. Input from superintendents. Every AEA chief administrator meets with their joint superintendents monthly, so they are extremely clear on what Iowa school districts need and are demanding. Indeed, Iowa code has required that AEAs be responsive to their districts’ requests. AEAs should not be blamed for following Iowa Code.

3. Claim: The current funding structure takes away schools’ and parents’ ability to choose in Special Education: Fact: Nothing could be farther from the truth. Under the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), when a child is identified as a child with a disability, they must receive an individualized education program (IEP). By law, this IEP must provide the student a Free Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment appropriate to meet the student’s needs. In short they get ALL of the services they need. There is a very specific process that must be followed to develop this IEP and parents and teachers are integral to the development of the IEP. There are even specific conflict resolution requirements written into the law in case parents disagree with their child’s IEP.

And here’s an important point. Most parents, when they find out that their child has a disability, are in no position to “direct and make decisions” about how to spend their child’s special education money. What they need is a group of highly trained, experienced experts to support and help guide them to the services that are most appropriate for their child during a very difficult time. That’s what they get now from AEAs, at no cost to them. To imply that providing parents and schools these dollars to spend on the open market is in some way going to improve on the safety net and quality of services provided by the AEAs is very likely not true and potentially harmful to students and families.

4. Claim: Students with disabilities’ achievement is not keeping up and it is somehow the AEAs fault. Fact: The factors that contribute to student achievement are complex and varied. The evidence base as well as common sense agree, however, that the most powerful influencer on student learning is instruction. Special education funding in Iowa is structured in a very specific way. AEAs provide general oversight, child find and an array of specialized support and related special education services. Districts provide instructional programs. So, while we would all like student achievement to grow faster than it is, to blame the AEA system alone for lack of student achievement gains is misplaced and misleading.

After careful analysis, if implemented as written, here are a few of the effects we can expect as a state:

1. Special education services will be reduced to students and families. It could very well be true that no federal nor state special education money will be lost in this structural change. However, the amount and quality of special education services that ultimately are provided to students are dependent on the EFFICIENCY of how the money is spent. When the AEAs were created, their purpose was both equity and efficiency. A little known component of Special Education is the amount of oversight, administration and reporting that must be completed to remain in compliance and keep the annual $180M of Federal Special Education funding coming. Iowa’s system for doing this is one of the best in the country as reflected in the small number of legal challenges our system experiences. Breaking up the state special education system into smaller increments (i.e., giving money directly to districts) will create significant duplication and inefficiency that does not currently exist. What used to be done by 1 state department and 9 AEAs will now be done by 1 state Department and 320+ school districts, which will take away from money going to student services. In short, same money + less efficiency = less service to kids.

2. Small districts will struggle to provide equitable services to students with disabilities. The model being proposed by this bill (give the money to districts and let them decide where to spend it – and make the AEAs cooperative service agencies) is a model being used by multiple other states. I have worked in many of these states. Did the authors of this bill study those systems to identify the benefits of other states’ systems over the current AEAs? If they had, I’d be very surprised that they offered this bill as a solution.

A couple of prominent problems with the proposed model.

1. Small districts will not have sufficient dollars to provide comprehensive services. Some AEA funding does flow thru the districts budgets to the AEAs, but if you examine the history of this funding, it was never “the districts’ money.” The legislature created this special appropriation for AEAs to ensure a robust AEA system for ALL Iowa districts. In this system, the large districts’ contributions subsidize the small districts’ services. If the proposed legislation passes, the Urban districts in Iowa will likely opt out of AEA services as they will have the economy of scale to provide a comprehensive special education program. As such a large number of dollars will exit the AEA system. Even if all the small districts in Iowa pooled their money and decided to stay in the AEA system, the breadth, depth and scope of AEA services will be severely restricted.

2. Small districts will especially struggle supporting students with low incidence, high intensity or complex disabilities. For example, many small Iowa districts may not have a student who is deaf and blind. As such, in any given year, they may not need services for a deaf and blind student, so they don’t spend instructional dollars on deaf/blind services. BUT, when they need these services, they need them. These services are provided by highly trained experts who are in high demand, expensive and hard to find. AEAs employ these specialists who serve all constituent districts at no direct cost to the district nor the parents. In a “coop” system, small districts who find themselves in the situation of needing deaf/blind services will either have to try to contract for them through an AEA who may or may not have these experts on staff given their reduced funding, or try to hire them on their own. In many cases in rural Iowa, it is very likely that these types of services could become unavailable. Multiply this situation by the many types of complex disabilities that must be served under IDEA, and you can imagine the problem that will be created.

3. Responsiveness to Iowa parents, schools and families will be sharply reduced. As a general rule, administration of education programs should be done as close as possible to the children and families who are being served. In Iowa, we have generally referred to this as “local control.” The logic here is simple. The people who know and own the children who are being educated should make decisions for them because they are the ones who know the children and the situation. This principle has worked extremely well in Iowa for decades. AEAs are part of that local system of administration and service delivery. As I mentioned, I worked for state government on and off throughout my entire career. I am intimately aware of the limitations of what the Iowa Department of Education can and cannot pull off as I was the Administrator over the PK-12 Division there for 8+ years. Being local, knowing every Iowa district, its administration, its community, its teachers and be responsive to them all IS NOT something the IDE can do in an ongoing way, not even if the proposed 100+ new staff persons are added. This is not what State government is structured to do, nor is it something it can do well. I have great respect for IDE and the professionals who work there. However, over-centralization of authority and hugely growing state government is not in the best interests of Iowa’s students and families.

To conclude, I respectfully have a few questions and will make a few recommendations.


  1. Specifically, for what problem or problems is this a solution? The rationales for this legislation, so far, are all addressable within the current structures. It is unclear why such drastic changes are being proposed.
  2. What evidence supports that the proposed legislation will make matters better for Iowa children and families?
  3. Are there successful example states where this proposed system structure has been implemented where results improved for special education? If so, where? How confident are we that these strategies are the ones that will work?
  4. To what extent were data collected on the current system to guide policy development? If they were collected, can they be published so Iowans can review them and better understand the rationale for some of the proposed changes?


  1. Please slow this process down. This is too important to do hastily because once done, it will be almost impossible to undo. Iowans will live with the impact of this session’s decisions literally for generations.
  2. Please base whatever changes you make on data, not perception. In complex situations like this, the best decisions are made in the presence of objective data.
  3. No matter what changes are made, please put metrics in place to monitor the effectiveness of the changes.
  4. Please listen carefully to your constituents. While AEAs are not well known to all Iowans, to those who have needed their services, they are almost universally praised. There are reasons for that. Please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Thank you very much for your service to Iowa. Respectfully,

William David Tilly III, PhD
Former Deputy Director, Iowa Department of Education

Top photo is by wavebreakmedia, available via Shutterstock.

About the Author(s)

David Tilly

  • First, Do No Harm

    Tilly’s excellent letter lays out the harm to Iowan children with disabilities. Second to do no harm to people, do no harm to our rural school districts. Tilly again articulates the harm. Tilly raises questions that every legislator should answer before moving forward. Tilly noted to “blame the AEA system alone for lack of student achievement gains is misplaced and misleading”. Without the analysis laid out by Tilly, lack of achievement goals will not be improved. Without any critical in-depth study, Reynolds could have just as easily blamed school administrators for failing to adequately support special ed staff. With her antipathy to public schools, Reynolds will likely move to criticize our University programs which educate and graduate teaching special ed majors. Do not harm, Gov. Reynolds. And if you are unsure of short or long-term harm, then Iowans will support you if you conclude you need greater study and to remove the legislation from consideration.

  • appreciate this attempt to fill in some of the vital details

    let’s be frank, someone is one of the various kill taxes “think” tanks did the math and realized that much of the expansion of education budgets in recent decades is tied to all of the services required to help all of the kids to succeed and if they are going to shrink these budgets they need to cut these programs, for them the deeper the cuts the better. That said this will be the rub with reactionary voters and legislatures “Most parents, when they find out that their child has a disability, are in no position to “direct and make decisions” about how to spend their child’s special education money. What they need is a group of highly trained, experienced experts to support and help guide them to the services that are most appropriate for their child during a very difficult time”
    as they have been socialized to despise such experts/elites (they take the assertion of such expertise as an attack on their own judgment) and to think of themselves as somehow knowing best about things they know little to nothing about. Thanks to everyone trying to ward off these attacks.

  • No surprise

    Tilly states, “Much of the rhetoric supporting the need for this legislation is not accurate at best, and misleading at worst.”

    This is absolutely no surprise. If there’s one thing we have learned about Republican lawmakers it’s that they are masters of disinformation. And it’s no surprise that no impact study of this legislation was done. To dirkiniowacity’s point, it’s all about cutting costs. Evidence, foresight, and data are of no value when you only have an eye on the bottom line. The end justifies the means. People suffer in the process? “So what? Not my concern!”