Plan for Iowa AEAs relied on consultant's faulty analysis

Members of the public at a January 31 Iowa House subcommittee considering House Study Bill 542, the governor’s bill on Area Education Agencies. (photo by Laura Belin)

David Tilly is a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. He gave Bleeding Heartland permission to publish a follow-up letter he emailed to all 150 Iowa state legislators on January 30. His first message to lawmakers regarding Governor Kim Reynolds’ proposed changes to Area Education Agencies is available here.

My name is David Tilly and I was the Deputy Director at the Iowa Department of Education between 2012 and 2020. When I wrote my first comments to you regarding the AEA bill(s), I had only seen the bills themselves and was somewhat confused regarding the rationales for some of the bill components. The underlying report upon which this bill’s proposals are based was released recently through a Freedom of Information Act Request and posted here. This report was written by Guidehouse Inc., a respected national and international company. The report is quite well done in many regards. After reading this report, I am able to provide more specific analysis and more detailed recommendations on improving special education results in Iowa.

There appear to be three thematic issues (and a host of smaller inaccuracies) with the report that cause the report’s recommendations to be problematic. Fortunately, all 3 major issues can be fixed. The issues are: 1. The analysis is incomplete 2. The analysis/recommendations rely on unproven assumptions and 3. The analysis does not recognize the benefits inherent in the uniqueness of Iowa’s Education System structures. I will expand on each of these.

1. Incomplete analysis. One major purpose of this report is to examine ways to improve special education results in Iowa. There are three legs to the stool of improving education results: funding, policy/statutes/governance and education program components (teaching and learning variables). All three must work together to get the best results for students. And all three must be considered jointly to answer the question “why are we getting the results we’re getting?” This report does not examine anything regarding education program provision, but instead limits their analysis to funding and policy/statutes/governance. Of the three, education program implementation is the component MOST related to student results. Omitting an analysis and recommendations related to teaching and learning variables limits the likelihood that the root causes of special education underperformance have been identified, thus rendering any recommendations for improvement premature. Policy and funding actions, without collateral instructional actions will likely not move the needle of student achievement.

2. Unproven Assumptions. This report does a nice job summarizing much factual data about the AEA system. However, when the connection between its analysis and its recommendations are examined, some unproven assumptions emerge.

Three examples:

a. The report assumes and implies that increased accountability and centralized authority at the Department of Education will improve student results. Special education is one of the most compliance-heavy areas of education, due primarily to the civil rights that are involved. In instances where there is willful non-compliance with the special education laws or non- compliance due to lack of knowledge or skill, compliance monitoring can help set things right. Compliance with the law, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to promote improved student results. To my knowledge, there are not scientific studies that demonstrate that increasing special education compliance monitoring will result in improved special education results.

b. The report compares Iowa to other states in terms of student spending and student results. It recommends that Iowa’s AEAs should be restructured to look more like other states with better student results. This recommendation conflates correlation with causality. For example, eating ice cream and getting a sunburn are events that are correlated, but one does not cause the other. The report assumes that the differences in structures CAUSE differences in student result. This is a fairly high level inference and in the absence of additional analysis comparing instructional and programmatic differences between the various states, this causal assumption and thus this recommendation is hard to defend.

c. The report rightly praises the value of local control in education service delivery. It further identifies that the AEAs employ more than 10 times the number of staff than the Department of Education. This is by design. The individuals providing services to schools and families need to live in their communities, be close by, have professional relationships with the administrators, teachers, children and families in their community. They need to understand the context of the district as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Where the report goes awry is in its assumption/assertion that the AEA services stand APART from local control. AEA services ARE A PART OF LOCAL CONTROL in Iowa – by design. Schools have a strong voice in AEA services, not only by code but by tradition. Superintendents generally find AEAs responsive to their needs and schools report high levels of satisfaction with what they receive. AEAs mostly collaborate with districts, not direct them. If increased voice in AEA services is deemed necessary, that objective can be accomplished in many different ways within the current systems structure, without tearing down the AEA safety net by making AEAs co-ops.

The report makes another recommendation about local control that appears to go against the principles of local control. The report recommends that “the Iowa Department of Education requires additional staffing, funding, and infrastructure to more effectively oversee the state’s special education system.” This is the exact opposite of local control – this is central control and it will hugely grow the size of state government. This proposal would divert money from AEA services that are provided locally to districts and centralize professional staff away from districts where they are needed most. The need for additional layers of compliance monitoring is one of the less strong arguments this report. However, if additional compliance monitoring is in fact needed centrally, the Department of Education has more than sufficient money in its Part B administrative budget and its Part B set aside budget to hire additional compliance-related staff without taking dollars away from local school districts.

3. Does Not Appreciate Iowa System’s Uniqueness. The report identifies that the AEA funding and operational mechanisms are unique in the country, and that because our student results are not on par with other states, the report implies that this uniqueness is undesirable. This is another example of conflating correlation with causality. My position is that this uniqueness is highly desirable. In many ways, the AEA system is the envy of the country, as it creates a comprehensive safety net for parents and students with disabilities no matter where they live in Iowa. It also provides a regionalized professional development system to help districts deploy the educational strategies that will be necessary to raise special education student’s achievement.

There are reasons that the AEAs were structured the way they are. A brief history may help. In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, it was often assumed that the best thing for many persons with disabilities and their families was for the persons with disabilities to live away from their families in homes or institutions where care for persons with disabilities existed. In most cases, educational opportunity for individuals with disabilities was quite limited. In the late 60s and early 70’s, thinking about persons with disabilities changed significantly. The idea that persons with disabilities could live productive lives in their home communities became predominant. In 1975, the Federal Education for the Handicapped Act (that is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: IDEA) was passed. This law required a host of new education services to be made available to families, and allowed every Iowan with a disability to be educated in their local school, close to home. The Iowa General Assembly at the time, under the leadership of members such as Chuck Grassley and Del Stromer, considered multiple structures to serve Iowa children and families. They realized that small school districts did not have the resources to independently hire all of the specialized professionals that would be necessary, nor did small districts need full-time professionals in all areas required. The legislature did want every school district in Iowa to have access to these high quality services, in the amount needed by the districts, and “just in time” when the districts needed them. So the Legislature created the AEA SYSTEM. It is important to recognize that what was created was and is a comprehensive system meant to serve ALL districts. Services to districts could flex from the AEA to the districts based on needs, and no new fiscal arrangements needed to be made every time services flexed. The system was efficient, cost effective and responsive to the needs of schools.

A very important point about AEA funding and services that is not considered in the report is that the AEA system was designed to be funded comprehensively. All districts pay in, and all districts receive comprehensive high quality services in return. In this system, however, small districts’ comprehensive services are subsidized by large district contributions. That is, small districts receive back in service MORE in value than the dollars they contribute. This is by design, and one of the reasons why small districts will experience reduced services if large districts are allowed to Opt-Out. The dollars they have will not buy them equivalent services to what they are receiving now. The AEAs economy of scale advantage and safety net properties will be lost.

Recommendations for Improving Special Education Results

1. Complete the Analysis. As noted, the current study and report have left out some of the key drivers that produce student learning improvement. Specifically variables related to special education program provision, quality of instruction, IEPs, curriculum, time allocation and a myriad of other variables that can improve learning needs to be completed. An analysis of these characteristics, compared with other states whose special education results are superior to ours would be most enlightening, and would provide important targets for improvement in Iowa’s system.

2. Answer nagging questions about any legislation’s impact BEFORE passing the legislation. Determine conclusively, with data, if Iowa’s system structure is truly obsolete, or if it is a structure within which accelerated special education growth can be generated. Engage schools, engage communities, engage parents of children with Disabilities, engage children with disabilities themselves, engage the AEAs – do these studies together. We are all on the same side of this issue. Everyone wants results for children with Disabilities to improve, so let’s figure out the answers together as a state and then codify them. Let this be the beginning of the discussion, not the end of it.

Iowa’s schools, children and families will bear the greatest consequences of any legislation that is passed. With appropriate study and analysis, many of these questions can be addressed so Iowans will have a solid basis regarding whether to support or oppose the final legislation. Questions to address include, but are not limited to:

a. What services will small districts be able to afford in a coop arrangement where large districts have opted out? Compare results to what they receive now under the AEA system.

b. Will services to students and families in rural districts be diminished or remain the same?

c. What will happen to the statewide safety net for all children with disabilities? Will this legislation create holes in it? If so, where? If not, that would reassure many Iowans.

d. Will there be situations where small districts will not be able to find and/or afford special education support and related service providers locally? How will the state address this compliance concern?

e. How responsive will the new system be to districts, parents and families compared to the current AEA system?

f. What services SHOULD the AEA provide to meet the needs of school districts in 2024?

g. And the list goes on. I am certain a comprehensive list of questions can be generated from the input provided to the legislature so far.

3. Make recommendations for policy based on the evidence-base regarding what education policies support sustained growth in achievement. The McKinsey group looked at education systems all over the world that sustainably grew, in one of the most comprehensive examinations in history. Their study can be accessed here. In general, nations, states and districts that sustainably improved did the following things: building the instructional skills of teachers and management skills of principals, assessing students, improving data systems, facilitating improvement through the introduction of policy documents and education laws, revising standards and curriculum, and ensuring an appropriate reward and remuneration structure for teachers and principals. Examining the extent to which Iowa has adopted these policy objectives would be another important step towards addressing special education students achievement growth.

4. Support schools in examining their own implementation of the knowledge-base of what works to raise student achievement. In my experience the most trustworthy summary of the most effective things that schools can do that raise student achievement are presented here. Schools need to compare what they’re doing to what has been proven to be effective. Keep the things that are working, stop doing the things that don’t and adopt the most powerful practices. AEAs and the Department of Education need to help them do that. Indeed, the Department and AEAs were collaborating to do just this type of analysis and improvement and then COVID hit, and the efforts have not resumed. This initiative was called Collaborating for Iowa’s Children (or C4K for short) and it was helping districts, one by one, do the analysis and adoption of effective practices mentioned above. The process is standardized and was created collaboratively with AEAs, the DE and school districts working together. Implementing these efforts will not require new money to complete. The Department of Education has many existing state and federal funds that can be coordinated toward this end of improving results. In addition to the special education accounts already mentioned, the state gets between 4 and 5 million dollars a year of Federal money for what’s called “state assessment.” Similarly, the state gets significant dollars for the many Title programs that exist under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA). Early Childhood dollars can even be coordinated with efforts to improve results. All of these existing funding streams, if leadership sets clear direction for them can be coordinated to a unified end.

Thank you very much for listening to the comments of so many caring Iowans. And thank you for your service to Iowa.


William David Tilly, Ph.D.
Former Deputy Director, Iowa Department of Education
Adel, Iowa

Appendix: Guidehouse report on Special Education in the State of Iowa, which the governor’s office released to Bleeding Heartland on January 29 (in response to a public records request submitted on January 16)

About the Author(s)

David Tilly