This AEA direct service provider has many unanswered questions

Photo of speech therapist working with child is by Ground Picture, available via Shutterstock

Kerri Schwemm has been employed as an AEA speech-language pathologist for 27 years. After the Iowa House approved the final version of the AEA bill, but before that version came to a vote in the Iowa Senate, she posed the questions enclosed below in bold to state legislators who represent portions of the Southeast Polk school district, where she lives and works: Republican State Representatives Jon Dunwell, Barb Kniff McCulla, Bill Gustoff, and Brian Lohse, and Republican State Senators Jack Whitver and Ken Rozenboom. She also posted her questions on the social media feeds of some GOP lawmakers who were involved in negotiating the AEA bill: State Representatives Skyler Wheeler and Chad Ingels, and State Senator Lynn Evans.

Continuous improvement, change, reform. Whatever you want to call it, it’s been part of the educational landscape forever. In fact, for the 27 years I’ve worked for the Area Education Agencies (AEA) system, I have seen this system continuously improve, change, and reform their practice. These necessary components of education happen through a process of evidence gathering, collaborative input, and thoughtful decision making.

Key state legislators who worked on the AEA bill gathered some evidence and received lots of public feedback, but thoughtful decision-making was lacking. For any of them to claim nothing will change with AEA services reflects ignorance.

Republican legislators who supported House File 2612 may be trying to help themselves sleep at night with statements such as: “Because this bill requires school districts to use the AEAs for special education services, there will not be any disruption to special education services.” Or: “This bill does not terminate any employees of the AEAs.” Or: “This bill does not prohibit the AEAs from providing any services they currently offer.”  

Since January, I’ve sent several Republican legislators questions about implications for my work as a speech-language pathologist. If the claims of those who advocated for this bill were true, the questions should be easy to answer. Yet no one has answered my questions.

Speech-language services in the schools can encompass a broad range of support provided to children, including speech sound production, language, literacy, social communication, cognitive communication, stuttering, and voice interventions. Some provisions in House File 2612 could have unintentional negative consequences for those services. Anyone who says otherwise is naive. That prospect weighs heavily on the minds of many speech-language pathologists across the state (more than 550 of us work for the AEAs).

Like my colleagues, I’ve been trying to process both the new law’s intended goals and the unintended outcomes. As I spend each of my school days engaged with students, teachers and families, I can’t help but wonder how things will play out over the next one, three, five, or ten years.

The bill may not explicitly terminate employees, but it’s certainly making high-quality professionals leave. Across Iowa, some open job postings will not be filled, either because of a need to eliminate the position or due to a lack of applicants.

How can we support maternity and medical leaves if we won’t be fully staffed to begin with?

Who will tell a school principal, or a parent, that I have to reduce my time at that building because we all have to fill in gaps of services? I certainly can’t propose to reduce a student’s therapy minutes on the IEP because I need to pick up part of a caseload in a nearby district.

Response received: none.

House File 2612 does not prohibit the AEAs from providing any of the services we provide now. However, special education, media, educational, and technology services are all intertwined. If one is broken, weakened, or gone, the others will suffer. This bill will interfere with collaborative services among those branches. The decreased and unstable media funding will make it difficult for related service providers, such as speech-language pathologists, to obtain evidenced-based instructional materials.

How does this legislation ensure that the AEAs will have funding to provide me with the instructional, technology and media tools I need to work with students?

What do I do if there are media/technology services needed by one of my students, but the district is not contracted with the AEA for media services?

Response received: none.

Currently, two AEA speech-language pathologists serve as State Leads for a specific number of allocated days of the year. The State Leads have assisted with teletherapy practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have researched, created, and delivered statewide learning that is relevant, timely, and quite frankly, comparable to any nationally known researcher in our field.

To our current knowledge, as of July 1, those roles are gone. I reached out to the Iowa Department of Education to get clarification on March 20th and I’m still waiting for a response. Since House File 2612 allows the Department of Education to retain 100 percent of the AEA professional development allocated funding, my questions remain.

How will funding be provided to the AEA for professional development that my AEA colleagues and I need?

How will the Department of Education be accountable for the PD money they will keep from the AEAs? In fact, how does the department define professional development? 

Response received: none.

In their haste to get the bill signed, they did not realize all the services that will be impacted by the funding “reallocation.”

How does this legislation ensure that Challenging Behavior and Autism Teams will continue to be available to support these critical needs in districts?

How will assistive technology services and trial/loan devices be funded? And what about Early Access?

Response received: none.

This is not fear mongering. This is not an overreaction. This is thousands of experienced educators attempting to collaborate in order to provide the best services we can, after change has been forced upon us.

I’ve taken inventory of my current workload and access to quality co-workers, instructional materials, professional learning, and the internal support that allows me to practice at the top of my license. If I should be able to “perform the services that (I) do now”, then I should not anticipate significant changes to any of that.

I hope that’s true. I hope my questions get answered. The longer I receive no response, the more convinced I am that “true ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.”

About the Author(s)

Kerri Schwemm