Long-time state education department director says governor’s consultant report does not support her proposed changes to Iowa’s AEAs

Ted Stilwill has over 40 years of education experience starting as a teacher, building administrator, and central office administrator in Council Bluffs. He worked for the Iowa Department of Education for 18 years, first in charge of elementary and secondary education and then as department director for nearly 10 years. Following his work in the Iowa Department, Ted worked for a national educational nonprofit helping school districts and state education agencies work toward better outcomes for students. He finished his education career by working locally leading an 11-district consortium of metro Omaha districts in designing and implementing early childhood education centers.

by Ted Stilwill, Iowa Capital Dispatch
February 17, 2024

Last fall, Governor Reynold’s Department of Administrative Services contracted with a business consulting firm to produce a report critical of Iowa’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs). The study was translated into a bill submitted by the governor to decimate the AEAs and weaken Iowa’s public education system.

The authors of the report are not listed. The costs are not known. The directions to the consulting firm have not been shared. The consulting firm has no apparent expertise or track record in the education world. There is no documentation in the report that a single Iowan was engaged in the preparation of the report. Most importantly, I believe the conclusions about AEAs are flawed.

Of the three general negative charges against AEAs, none hold up to scrutiny, even when using data from the report.

Lack of accountability

There is an accusation that there is little or no accountability for AEAs. Here is what the report says:

As the analysis in this report will show, Iowa’s special education structure gives AEAs vast control over the education of students with disabilities with little oversight from school districts and the Iowa Department of Education.  (page 8)
Despite school districts funding the operation of AEAs, school district staff members – including school superintendents – are prohibited from sitting on AEA boards of directors and lack formal oversight and accountability mechanisms over AEAs. (page 9)

So, the sole basis in the report for claiming lack of accountability is the legislated prohibition for local teachers and administrators to sit on their local AEA Board.

This ignores several important facts. The local district boards appoint the AEA board members, which certainly provides accountability from the local community side and is free from the possible conflicts of interest in staff serving on a governance function.

This criticism for lack of accountability inexplicably totally ignores an active state accreditation system and annual reporting to the Iowa Department of Education and annual budget approval by the department and the state board. This is the same sort of mechanism the state uses to provide accountability to school districts.  There is no evidence that this process is not working.

Academic achievement

The report raises a concern about the academic achievement of special education students. Here is what the report says:

In the most recent administration of  NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) in 2022, students with disabilities in Iowa scored below the national average, despite the state investing several thousand dollars more on a per pupil basis for special education students for that year in comparison to the national special education spending average. (page 8)

If you look on page 21 of the consultant’s report, you see that in 2022, Iowa Special Education students scored 1 point below the national average on a 500 point scale.  This is for a test that only samples students in each state. We should not even be using NAEP data for state-to-state comparisons because, as stated on NAEP’s own website:

“Although every effort is made to include as many students as possible, different jurisdictions have different exclusion policies, and those policies may have changed over time. Because SD (students with disabilities) and EL (English learners) students typically score lower than students not categorized as SD or EL, jurisdictions that are more inclusive — that is, jurisdictions that assess greater percentages of these students — may have lower average scores than if they had a less inclusive policy.”

Practically speaking, districts and states, for what I believe are legitimate reasons, might exclude some of the more severely cognitively handicapped students from testing on a grade level oriented test. Including or excluding even a few very low scoring students would affect the overall average significantly. (The governor’s comment that we have been “failing these students for 20 years” may not be warranted.)

This doesn’t mean that current student performance is acceptable, but it would not warrant the radical reduction in non-special education services and the centralization of control and services to the state level.

While the reliance on NAEP data is questionable, the report also ignores other indicators such as the improvement in the graduation rate for children with disabilities from 69.51% in 2016 to 80.43% and the dropout rate for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) which was 19.79% in 2016 but improved to 17.25% in 2020.

These facts do not suggest that Iowa has been failing special education students for 20 years as the governor has stated. These numbers were extracted from the “State Performance Plan / Annual Performance Report: Part B” as part of “Indicator 1” and “Indicator 2” that was attached to the consultant report.

It is also not clear how reducing or eliminating services in media and instructional services would improve special education learning. In fact, most special education students are with regular education teachers most of the time. Improving instruction in regular education classrooms would seem to greatly benefit special education students who might struggle there. Eliminating AEA instructional services, the primary provider of continuing education for regular education teachers, does not seem like a good plan.

Overspending on special education

A third major criticism of the AEAs is that Iowa spends too much on special education. Here is what the report states:

Iowa spends $5,331 more per-pupil on special education than the national average.

Iowa might spend more on special education students than many other states, although the actual data can be confusing. This is not a new situation, and it is not controlled by the AEAs. Their funding is set primarily by the Legislature, as noted in the report.

However, from my admittedly dated observations, the Iowa system for special education is more sophisticated, with stronger programs than many states. For example, there is evidence of many fewer parent complaints and legal cases about poor services than in other states.  Iowa was one of the first states to provide comprehensive support for autistic kids and so forth.

Also, identifying special education costs and comparing them is not as simplistic as the report indicates. For example, see the table on page 96.

Iowa is listed with the $14,387 cost quoted in the report, but nine states report zero dollars and several others seem to understate the cost.  It does not inspire confidence that the data accurately captures costs or represents apples to apples comparisons.

For a very different analysis, here is a link to a state-by-state review of special education costs from the Education Commission of the States that has very different figures for each state’s special education spending. Iowa pays for membership in ECS and the governor and Education Department director are part of Iowa’s representatives on the commission. ECS shows Iowa spending $6,324/pupil with many more states spending more.

This is very different than the $14,387 per student quoted in the consultant’s report.  There is obviously more than one way of analyzing these costs.

In summary, the consultant’s report has obvious flaws and seems selective in the data it chooses to highlight. I am suspicious of a report requested by the governor’s Department of Administrative Services rather than the Iowa Department of Education. The Education Department is under the leadership of the governor’s appointed director, who would have access to more educational expertise to guide the study.

If the Department of Administrative Services received a groundswell of concern about special education and AEAs, where is the documentation of those concerns?  Lacking any documented concerns, why was the report requested?

The underlying question is why the governor does not support public schools. Her administration has diverted millions of dollars to private schools for the first time in state history. The new charter schools recently approved by the state will be run by out-of-state companies.

She has appointed Education Department directors with expertise in funding private schools, but little background in supporting the schools where 90% of our students attend. While she has offered more dollars for teacher salaries, her current AEA proposal will make their job more difficult and with less support.

When Gov. Terry Branstad appointed me director of the Department of Education in 1995, he often spoke personally of the importance of public education. When I later worked for Gov. Tom Vilsack, I could not have asked for a stronger ally in supporting or improving public education. I must wonder what has changed.

Now Gov. Reynolds’ bill is in the hands of the Iowa Legislature. It seems that Iowa legislators learned one thing from the governor’s fiasco attack on AEAs – they should not threaten services for Iowa’s special education students! Parents and teachers of students with disabilities are excellent advocates for their kids.

So now House Speaker Pat Grassley says he wants to provide “certainty for special education.” Maybe lawmakers should have noticed that while legions of parents opposed the changes, they did not see parents complaining about the current system and championing the proposed changes.

Unfortunately, the newest legislative proposal still misreads the need for change and, in the rush to meet legislative deadlines, will severely damage a support system for Iowa schools for many years to come. The Legislature needs to take time for a comprehensive study of the AEA system, including all the services that they provide.

The only evidence for changing the system comes from bogus conclusions in a consultant report analyzed above. For example, the consultants cherry picked very questionable data on academic achievement and chose to ignore a dramatic improvement in the graduation rate for special education students from 69.16% in 2016 to 80.43% in 2020.  Which data point would be more important special education students, to their parents, and to Iowa’s economy?

Making continuing education and technology support for teachers optional for districts means that, in the tough times ahead for Iowa’s budget, those services will be cut by districts to keep class sizes reasonable. There are always good reasons to review existing governmental delivery systems, but a rush to make major changes based on flawed information carries risks of damage that may take many years to correct.

This is an updated version of a column originally published by Bleeding Heartland.

Iowa Special Education System Report_FINAL

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