No, the feds are not threatening to take over special education in Iowa

State Senator Lynn Evans speaks in the Iowa Senate on March 18.

David Tilly is a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. He emailed this message to all 150 Iowa legislators on March 20. His previous messages to lawmakers about proposed changes to Area Education Agencies are available here, here, and here.

Open letter to Iowa Legislators:

I am David Tilly. I was Deputy Director at the Iowa Department of Education between 2012 and 2020. I oversaw the Division of PK-12, which encompasses special education responsibility and oversight in Iowa. I am writing today to address a rumor that appears to be circulating about the AEA bills. Specifically that the Iowa Department of Education must be given both more authority and more compliance resources over special education or the “feds” might come in and “take us over.” This statement is patently false. That is not how Federal Special Education Monitoring of states works. The Iowa Department of Education currently has all of the monetary resources and authority necessary to effectively monitor special education in Iowa.

Please excuse the long-detailed email, but it’s important to set the record straight.

I am a special educator by training and have worked at the state and national level consulting on these issues for nearly my entire career (35+ years). The “feds” that are being referred to here are the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and their parent office, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). I have worked directly with both offices frequently over my career and many former Directors of those offices are close colleagues and personal friends. I know how these offices operate.

Here’s a brief primer on how the Feds currently evaluate state special education systems. They have a system that is called Results Driven Accountability or (RDA). This system is a continuous improvement process and has been revised in recent years to place emphasis on results, not just procedural compliance. This system is intended to help states improve, it is NOT designed as a punitive reward and sanction system! Each state submits a State Performance Plan and an Annual Performance Report to OSEP who runs these data through a set of scoring matrices. From that analysis, states are categorized into one of 4 categories (called Determinations):

From Best to Worst Determinations:

  1. Meets the requirements and purposes of IDEA;
  2. Needs assistance in implementing the requirements of IDEA;
  3. Needs intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA; or
  4. Needs substantial intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA.

From the latest determinations by OSEP (June, 2023) for both part B of IDEA (children 3-21) and part C of IDEA (children birth-3), Iowa is classified as “needs assistance in implementing the requirements of IDEA” (level 2 above). 35 other states in addition to Iowa received this determination for part B. 28 other states in addition to Iowa received this determination level for part C.

What does this mean for Iowa? It means that there are areas that can be improved. Iowa did well in some outcome areas and less well in others. This has been the case since 1975. There are always things that can be improved, and as can be seen, we are in the second highest determination level “needs assistance” not “needs intervention.”

What can OSEP do with these results? Taken directly from Iowa’s 2023 Determination Letter from OSEP:

“The State’s determination for 2021 was also Needs Assistance. In accordance with Section 616(e)(1) of the IDEA and 34 C.F.R. § 300.604(a), if a State is determined to need assistance for two consecutive years, the Secretary must take one or more of the following actions:

(1) advise the State of available sources of technical assistance that may help the State address the areas in which the State needs assistance and require the State to work with appropriate entities;

(2) direct the use of State-level funds on the area or areas in which the State needs assistance; or

(3) identify the State as a high-risk grantee and impose Specific Conditions on the State’s IDEA Part B grant award.“

Translated that means that OSEP can choose to (from most likely to least likely):

(1)  Advise Iowa on areas that need improvement and required the state to work with specific technical assistance providers to improve the situation.

(2)  Require the state to spend specific state-level administrative funds on specific issue to improve the situation

(3)  Or, if the state is being willfully non-compliant with federal law, or not working vigorously or effectively enough on improving their issues, OSEP can identify the state as a high risk grantee (the grant they are talking about here is Iowa’s roughly $150M of federal Special Education Funds Iowa receives annually). If that happens, they can do one or more of the following (taken directly from Title 29 § 97.12 of the Code of Federal Regulations):

(b) Special conditions or restrictions may include:
(1) Payment on a reimbursement basis;
(2) Withholding authority to proceed to the next phase until receipt of evidence of acceptable performance within a given funding period;
(3) Requiring additional, more detailed financial reports;
(4) Additional project monitoring;
(5) Requiring the grantee or subgrantee to obtain technical or management assistance; or
(6) Establishing additional prior approvals.

None of this implies that the “feds” can or will come in and take us over. They won’t do that for 4 reasons: 1. They do not have the statutory authority to do so 2. They do not have the resources at OSEP to do so 3. It runs against RDA’s primary purpose, which is to help states improve and 4. Iowa has a long history of working with OSEP for positive improvement. This positive relationship influences which decisions OSEP makes with regards to monitoring.

Please excuse the long-detailed email, but it’s important to set the record straight.


Dave Tilly

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Republican State Senator Lynn Evans promoted the prospect of a federal takeover when floor managing House File 2612 (the AEA bill) on March 18. This clip shows the first portion of his closing remarks.

Evans warned colleagues, “The U.S. Department of Education has identified Iowans as ‘needs assistance’ for implementation of the Individuals with Disability in Education Act—IDEA—since 2018. If Iowa does not act, the federal government could determine our course of action due to the state needing assistance for two consecutive years.”

He later asserted that the feds might impose conditions on Iowa’s federal funds for special education. “In-person monitoring is scheduled for this fall. So the federal government will be in this fall.” He said the U.S. Department of Education “is about to step in. The AEAs play a role in this.”

Click here for the full official video of the Iowa Senate debate.

About the Author(s)

David Tilly