Jenny Turner speaks during an Iowa House subcommittee on the governor’s AEA bill on January 31. Photo by Laura Belin
Jenny Turner is a public school mom and a school speech therapist. She lives in West Des Moines.
Governor Kim Reynolds is not happy that Iowans have opinions about her attempt to gut Iowa Area Education Agencies. She even held a press conference—a rare occurrence—about her AEA plan on January 31, a few hours before Iowa House and Senate subcommittees were scheduled to consider her bill.
The governor has been desperately blitzing social media with graphics to try to persuade people.
Reynolds even owned up to the report on special education in Iowa by Virginia-based consultant Guidehouse, after journalists obtained it through public records requests. (Bleeding Heartland posted the report on January 29, and Iowa Capital Dispatch covered its key findings on January 30.)
Guidehouse does not appear to have contacted any AEA employees, parents, or Iowa school leaders while writing the report. It cites the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), taken by only about 260 Iowa kids in special education, to attempt to smear Iowa’s AEAs. It shows some years’ scores being below the national average.
I’m a speech-language pathologist and have worked in schools in Iowa, Texas, and now California through teletherapy. My experience has been that Iowa’s AEAs evaluate kids for special education based on more than a psychometric test score. They look at need and discrepancy in class performance as well. Iowa will staff kids back out of special education if they are performing commensurate with their peers and not needing specialized instruction to do so.
In contrast, Texas and California (and probably other states) will keep a kid in special education so long as they are performing below a certain level on those psychometric tests. The result may just be that Iowa’s special education kids are not scoring quite as high on the NAEP as those in some other states, but that our kids are getting a more individualized appropriate education.
Special education academic services are provided by school districts. AEAs evaluate which students need special education, help with writing individualized education plans, and provide support for teachers but don’t do the instruction. AEAs also provide specialists, like occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathologists like me, who do direct instruction in our areas. We all require master’s degrees in our fields to be certified, and there is a shortage of us.
The governor keeps talking about districts being able to choose whether they want to use AEAs, but rural districts or small districts will not have a full-time load to hire these specialists, and will likely not be able to find people to hire, as most of us live in metros.
They could use a company that provides services over the internet, possibly from out of state, for extra fees so the company can make a profit. That is my current job. I do teletherapy in a California school. All the kids I see have mild issues like speech sounds they need to fix, or learning grammatical structures. All of them can sit in front of a screen for 30 minutes. I’d still be more effective in the room with them.
During my time working for Heartland AEA, I saw nonverbal kids with a team of teachers and other AEA staff to work on behavior, communication, and routines. Playing with them at recess to elicit language was the most effective technique. Internet therapy with little contact with other professionals would not work for those kids at all.
Most Iowa schools will continue to need AEAs. Making hundreds of districts negotiate contracts with them subject to approval by the Iowa Department of Education (not currently known for speed) will create chaos and inefficiency. Staffing levels will likely drop, and highly specialized providers like assistive technology specialists and significant disability experts will be few and far between, affecting the quality of education for our high-need kids.
Iowans who know how the AEAs work and what they do are against the governor’s plan. The legislature’s website shows 300-some pages full of comments against the bills, and a long list of organizations that work in related fields are registered in opposition.
Reynolds should let an AEA audiologist come check her hearing, as she can’t seem to hear Iowans.
Editor’s note from Laura Belin: An Iowa House subcommittee did not advance the governor’s AEA bill, numbered House Study Bill 542. House Education Committee chair Skyler Wheeler has said the bill “will not move forward” in his committee. A Senate subcommittee advanced Senate Study Bill 3073 on January 31, but Republicans made clear they will demand more changes than Reynolds has agreed to.