The Future of AEAs: What I Said, Responses I Got

In general, I don't see the point of bothering my elected representatives. Too often, it seems like people with money, moving behind the scenes have already made the decisions and we just get to taste the medicine whether we've been asking for it or not. It also doesn't help that I live in the bluest county in Iowa, where things like 'public money for public schools' and 'let's not defund the AEAs' are widely accepted policy positions for the local reps.

I could write a whole series of posts unpacking my general cynicism about politics, my visceral dislike of performative activism, and my general sense of despair at the people in charge ever listening to regular, real-life people ever again, but I won't do that here. The Governor's AEA 'Reform' Bill-- which, if it contains a clearly defined pathway to improving the student outcomes she's suddenly so concerned about, has yet to be either revealed or explained to me-- got me off the bench and missives sent to the inboxes of every Senator or Representative that represents Johnson County.

Why? It's really simple. Three out of four of our kiddos have used services from Early Access. 6th Grader graduated from his speech IEP pre-COVID and has a 504. 2nd Grader and Kindergartner still have IEPs for speech and the 2nd Grader gets services outside of school to help with his diagnosis of apraxia.

Without the services we received from Early Access through the AEA, I have no idea where any of them would be right now. Those services had a profound impact on our kiddos and helped lay the groundwork for their current academic progress. They are vitally important and while I don't believe that anything should ever be completely sacrosanct, there are things you just don't mess with unless you have a very, very clear plan you can show to voters about how you're going to make things better.

I posted on Facebook about this (another rarity for me, these days) because it's that important, but if you live in a very blue county in a reddish state or a very red county in a bluish state, don't ever think that your voice doesn't matter. Look at your legislative maps, you might be surprised who represents your county- I know I sure was. I'm cynical enough to think that my sending emails probably won't make much of a difference to the final outcome of this-- whatever it is, but I'm now determined enough to at least try. 

So, here's what I said- and forgive my font/formatting differences. I'm copying and pasting directly from my Gmail here:

Dear Representative/Senator,


My name is Tom Nixon and I am a voter who resides in Johnson County while I might not be a direct constituent of yours, I felt it was important to email all the representatives for Johnson County (whether you represent some of the county or a decent chunk of it) and let them know my thoughts on HSB 542.


I realize that this bill is in the early stages of development and there is a process involved in creating our laws which includes both debate and opportunities for amendments before they reach the Governor’s desk.


However, with everything that I have read about this bill so far, I am gravely concerned about the impact it will have on our schools, our communities, and our children. This seems to be a case of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’- to the best of my knowledge, this bill gives something to school districts that none of them appear to be asking for and the services lost (because from everything I’ve seen, services would be lost) would then be coming out of already strained school district budgets who would be forced to pay higher prices to private companies for the same services or cut existing services to cover those costs. It is not clear to me if our children will benefit from any of this- in fact, the opposite seems to be true.


Education is a complicated issue, both here in Iowa and on the national stage. I hope we can agree that our educational system should strive for excellence and success for all children. I am not immune to arguments that putting more money into the system doesn’t appear to do much for student outcomes, however, no evidence exists that shows putting less money into the system will improve outcomes either. 


I have no problem ‘popping the hood’ on AEAs to make sure taxpayer money is being spent both wisely and effectively and most importantly of all, benefiting the students and children who need it the most. I have a big problem with legislative sleight of hand that will leave the students who need more with less. Fewer services, less access, and fewer pathways to success.


Too often, these past couple of years, the legislature has been intent on delivering solutions in search of problems instead of working to solve real problems confronting Iowans. I would hope that you consider this an opportunity to listen to the very real concerns put forth by Iowans about this bill.


I remain unimpressed and unconvinced by the talking points put forth by proponents of this bill and urge you to do everything in your power to preserve AEAs for our schools, our communities, and most importantly our children.

Please oppose this bill.


Thank you for your time and consideration,

Tom Nixon


I sent this to every Representative and Senator that represents even a chunk of Johnson County, so, for the record:

House
Brad Sherman, District 91
Heather Hora, District 92
Amy Nielsen, District 85
David Jacoby, District 86
Elinor Levin, District 89
Adam Zabnber, District 90

Senate:
Zach Wahls, District 43
Janice Weiner, District 45
Dawn Driscoll, District 46

Here are the replies I've gotten (at least so far):

Amy Nielsen, House District 85: Sent me a link to her newsletter and an invitation to two legislative forums on the topic that I couldn't make it to. 

She also sent this along:

Tom-

Thank you for your email and for expressing your thoughts on this issue.

 

I have and always will support AEAs and the wonderful work they do for Iowa’s children, I will do what I can to protect the very needed services AEAs provide.

 

Regards,

Amy


Janice Weiner, Senate District 45: Sent me this reply:

Tom –

 

Thank you for taking the time to write. Yes, we need to sit back and actually look at what is needed to improve the AEAs. That may entail some efficiencies and it may also entail some additions – and it should not be a quick process, because we’re talking about all of Iowa’s kids.

 

I remain extremely concerned by this bill, HF542. We had been hearing for some time that Governor Reynolds had her sights set on the AEAs. In her Condition of the State speech, she denied that she intended to do away with them – and then filed legislation that had been previewed with none of us that would shrink them so as to deprive many Iowa children of essential services. The avalanche of emails containing personal stories, including yours, that legislators have received is making a difference – please keep them coming.

 

There is oversight. They have boards, they have been through a regular accreditation process, and they get regular feedback. If some school superintendents are unhappy, they need to speak to all of us at the legislature.  AEA administrators and employees from whom I have heard have indicated their willingness to be audited, to have studies done, to find efficiencies, and to make changes as needed. No institution is perfect, but there needs to be an actual process that is open, transparent and fair process – not just a talking point.

 

My focus is on Iowa’s kids and their opportunity to get the best education possible. For me, that includes the full breadth of the work that AEAs do – services starting at age 3 and going through age 21 for some. It is not just something that can be defunded and replaced overnight with a division of the Department of Education or on the private market.

 

Iowa’s kids – and Iowa’s teachers – deserve all the services the AEAs provide, not the least of which is the crisis management teams that we just saw in action in Perry. And it is clear who would suffer the most: rural and small-town school districts, because they don’t have the funding to hire much needed positions for the same cost as they can pay for them through the AEAs. It will also impact non-public schools, whose students also access these services.

 

Every story matters. All legislators need to continue to hear these stories – again, they are making a difference. Also please educate others and show up at the Capitol, submit formal comments on the bill, and attend any public hearings and subcommittee hearings. I also encourage you to write letters to the editor – every small-town newspaper needs them. Everyone needs to hear from the stakeholders.

 

AEAs provide wrap-around services. They train substitute teachers (I know, I was a short-term substitute, and received my training at Grant Wood AEA). They provide professional development. They provide mental health resources when they may be available nowhere else.


Every Iowa kid matters. Not just some – every single kid. And every Iowa child deserves a quality, appropriate education. That is an essential part of the AEAs’ mission, and it is up to us as Iowans to ensure that remains the case.

 

Finally, since you are in the Iowa City/Johnson County area, I want to call your attention to two forums coming up next weekend:

  1. League of Women Voters, focus on education. Saturday, January 27, 9:30-11, Senior Center, Iowa City.
  2. A conversation with Johnson County Legislators on AEAs – a chance to tell your story. Sunday, January 28, 2-3:30pm, North Liberty Library.

 


Elinor Levin, House District 89: Sent me this reply:

Happy Tuesday!

There has been such incredible outreach on the subject of proposed changes to the AEAs that the Governor has brought before us that some of the Johnson County legislators feel it is important to gather folks together to give everyone a chance to be heard.

 

We will be at the North Liberty Library from 2-3:30 pm on Sunday, January 28.

 

Please pass along to your friends, family, and concerned neighbors. We hope to pack the room with stories about how AEAs like Grant Wood have benefitted Iowans for decades!

 

More information can be found on the Facebook event page here.

 

~Rep. Elinor A. Levin

Iowa House District 89

(she/her)


And she also sent this along as well:

Tom -

Thank you for sharing your opposition to the bill. 

 

I have so many questions about the changes the Governor and Republicans are proposing to our status quo- if AEAs focus solely on Special Ed. services, how will schools/districts manage substitutes and professional development? Are they getting increased funding to go it on their own or come up with new collective solutions? As the AEAs compete with each other and with private companies, are they still required to provide free special ed. services for private schools? As we already face such a lack of childcare options, who is going to coordinate Early Childhood 0-6 programs? Do we have a plan for rehousing Media Services? The list goes on.

I do not understand the impulse to toss a system under the bus because problems have been identified. Why are we not providing the resources that our AEAs need to best serve every school? The sad answer is that too many legislators and our governor would rather turn away from our public schools and simply ensure that the kids who private schools favor with acceptance have their needs met.

I have received hundreds of emails on this bill, and I am encouraging folks to directly contact their Representative and Senator using this link; Iowa Legislature - Find Your Legislator, and urge their friends and family around the state to do the same.  

~Rep. Elinor A. Levin


Zach Wahls, Senate District 43: Sent me this reply:

Thank you for contacting me about your concerns with Governor’s Reynolds proposal to eliminate many of the services and funding for Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs). I have received hundreds of emails from the residents of Senate District 43 and Iowans all across our state. After reviewing the Governor’s proposal, I have grave concerns and cannot support it without substantial changes. In particular, I’m concerned about how the Governor’s proposal would negatively affect the delivery of services to the Iowa students who depend on them. While I am always open to identifying how the delivery of public services can be improved, I fear the Governor’s proposal “throws the baby out with the bath water.” 

 

AEAs play a crucial role in providing special education, professional learning, and essential services to students from their birth to age 21. AEAs are a statewide resource that every district can depend on, especially when individual schools may struggle to offer such services independently.  This is a huge undertaking, and AEAs are spread thin as it is.

 

The Governor’s proposal is a significant blow not just to AEAs but also to the schools, students, and educators they serve. Governor Reynolds suggests replacing the independent boards overseeing the AEAs with her appointees at the Department of Education. Iowans across the state have doubts that a state department in Des Moines — with a new director who has never taught in a classroom — will be able to take charge of all nine AEAs without disrupting vital services.

 

Furthermore, the proposal contains substantial cuts to the services provided by AEAs. On the funding front, eliminating large portions of AEAs programs and divisions will not “save” school districts money – this proposal will just eliminate the services schools and students depend on without many alternatives for students and families across the state. Despite the proposal not yet being voted on by the Iowa legislature, the Department of Education is already pushing forward with plans to implement it. The Des Moines Register reports that there are job openings for a new Special Education Division at the Iowa Department of Education, anticipating the changes, even though this bill has not become law. That is NOT how this is supposed to work.

 

The Iowa legislature now faces the responsibility of deciding on this matter. It is crucial for House or Senate Republicans to consider the impact on families in their districts, breaking away from pressures by the Governor’s office. I strongly encourage you to keep reaching out to me and other legislators to express your concerns.

 

Thank you for your important advocacy for Iowa’s students, families, and schools.

 

Senator Zach Wahls



Adam Zabner House District 90: Sent me this reply


Dear Tom,

Thank you for reaching about your concerns with the Governors Bill, HSB 542.

I want you to know that I agree with you on the importance of AEA’s — my brother has dyslexia and the services he received in public school were truly life changing. In addition to special education, the AEA’s work with visually or hearing impaired  and mentally disabled students. The AEA’s work with local school districts to provide all kinds of services in math, language arts, reading recovery, and improving teaching instruction by providing professional development, just to name a few.

While we are still reviewing the Governors bill and learning more about it, I do not plan to support the bill. It’s essential that every kid in Iowa gets the services they need to be successful and thrive in school. There is more we can do to support our public school’s, parents, and teachers and the bill as written today does the exact opposite.

Thank you again for reaching out to me on this important issue. I’ll do my best to keep you up to date as we learn more.

Sincerely,
Adam



Dawn Driscoll Senate District 46: Sent me this (automatic) reply:


Thank you for your recent email,

Please be assured that all email messages received are read.

If you are my constituent, thank you for sharing your question or concern.

If you are asking a question or attempting to schedule an appointment or meeting, I will reply as timely as possible.

If you are sharing your opinion on a certain topic, bill or issue, my clerk will collect the data and share the information collected so I can express your concerns with my caucus. Please be sure to indicate the specific bill you are addressing in your message.

Also, it is important that you include your full name and address in messages so that we can identify you.

Respectfully,

Dawn Driscoll



It's worth noting that at this point, I have yet to hear from Representative Sherman, Hora and Senator Driscoll (though, I guess, partial credit for an automatic reply) who are all Republicans. Representative Jacoby from House District 86 is the only local Democrat I haven't heard from. Now, to be fair: while all of these people represent parts of the county I live in, only Representative Zabner and Senator Weiner are my direct representatives. I will extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone else because while I might be dropping into their inboxes, I'm sure a lot of their own constituents are too, so replying to little old me might not happen at all. 


However, this post is going to be up for two weeks or so (until February 16th) so if any more replies drift in, I'll add them to the post and update accordingly.

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