February 26, 2024

Students before politics - AEAs are a critical resource

Dr. Pamela Vogel

Des Moines

Fifty years ago, we put students before politics and the AEAs were created with the help of Senator Chuck Grassley, to create equal opportunities for all students, so that regardless of whether you lived in a rural area or an urban area, all children and educators had equal access and support to ensure Iowa students could achieve at the fullest.

As a special education teacher, I greatly benefitted from the AEA, I was able to increasingly improve my teaching, as we collaborated to see my students to their next steps beyond school and prepare them for independent living. After teaching, I served as a curriculum director, principal, and superintendent in several rural Iowa schools. I frequently reached out to AEA staff for assistance with math, literacy, and science materials and professional learning opportunities for our teachers. Our schools incorporated AEA personnel as a part of our school improvement planning teams to study student data and determine ways to create increased positive outcomes for students.

In 2015, I moved from being a superintendent in rural Iowa to a superintendency in rural Connecticut. I shared seven districts for 1600 students and encompassed 275 square miles. I quickly learned two things about the regional service centers in Connecticut: 1) they did not have special education staff to assist schools and 2) professional learning, curriculum materials, and other supports to schools were on a pay for use basis.

This required that we hire our own speech and language pathologists, school psychologists, contract out for occupational and physical therapists, vision and hearing specialists, and pay for any specialized educational materials and equipment that some students required. The annual cost for salary, benefits, travel between the schools, contracted services, and specialized materials and equipment for students was over $3.4 million dollars annually. In Iowa, these services would be provided by the district’s AEA. A school district in Iowa with 1600 students would receive approximately $600,000 in special education flow-through money that then gives the district all these services. This should make us all take pause. Without the AEAs, schools will pay more, and it likely will result in increased property taxes.

It was extremely difficult to find quality staff for these positions. When an educator called to request professional materials from the educational service center, it was the school’s responsibility to acquire them. Not like the AEAs in Iowa who locate and deliver materials to schools every week at no additional cost.

If Iowa loses this system, these strong supports will be gone. We will lose many of the current professionals employed by the AEAs. Schools who are already having difficulty with budgets will be forced to reallocate their purchasing power. We will have inconsistencies in services throughout the state. This will result in some children who will be served and others who will not.

The governor’s proposals are wrong for Iowa. The AEA is a critical resource that our children desperately need. Let’s support our children and give them the best chance to succeed by preserving the AEA.