State Sen. Ken Rozenboom of District 19 knew almost a year ago that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds was going to take a hard look at the structure of Area Education Agencies, but the chairman of the Senate Education Committee had hoped he would have been given an advanced copy of the bill prior to its announcement.
“I will tell you I had hoped to have a sneak preview of the governor’s proposal before she went public with it,” he said. “I did not have it. Those of you who watched her Condition of the State address 13 days ago saw it just as quickly as I did. The next morning, the bill, all 123 pages of it, was on my desk.”
While giving a legislative update with House Rep. Jon Dunwell at the Newton school board meeting on Jan. 22, Rozenboom held up a thick, black folder.
“I knew almost a year ago that the governor was going to look at the AEA structure, and because I knew that I started about four months ago visiting with superintendents and school boards and teachers and parents, and this notebook is kind of my own research,” he said, displaying the notebook in one hand.
Rumors were swirling around potential legislation affecting the AEAs long before lawmakers convened for the 2024 session. Iowans were officially informed of the governor’s plan to rework the agencies during her Condition of the State address. The details of the proposed bill were released shortly after to much criticism.
“It was not quite what I expected,” Rozenboom said. “It was probably more aggressive than I expected. For the next few days I started trying to study the bill and study the ramifications. But I stayed away from discussions with colleagues because I wanted them to … create their own perceptions.”
Shortly after the bill was unveiled, it was clear the AEAs would be forced to stop providing a large majority of general education services and focus solely on improving special education. Reynolds said in her address that Iowa’s special education students are performing below the national average.
However, pushback from Iowans prompted Reynolds to amend the bill to include general education services. In an open letter to Iowans, the governor said her amended bill would allow AEAs to continue providing special education services and allow districts to get their share of AEA funding for education services, too.
At the time of the school board meeting, Rozenboom had not acquired the amended legislation, but he kind of knows what it says. To him, it is a much more acceptable bill than the original proposal. The senator was convinced that not a single legislator would have voted for the first proposal.
“I don’t know that and I don’t want to overstate it, but I didn’t sense a lot of, ‘Yeah! Let’s get this done!’ Last Wednesday when she talked about some revisions, I warmed up to it some,” Rozenboom said. “I’m not there yet. I’m keeping my powder dry.”
Rozenboom has served 12 years in the Iowa Senate, but this year is unlike any other in the sense that the AEA legislation has “sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room” and is dominating every legislative conversation thus far. The senator is feeling the public pressure.
“I’ve been up here 12 years but I’ve never quite felt the pressure that I feel right now,” he said. “There is a half million Iowa kids that are depending upon us getting this right. And you’re depending on us getting this right. I don’t know what all that means right now. I’m being very open and honest with you.”
But Rozenboom wanted the audience to be reassured about one thing: Despite what they may have heard, the statehouse process “is very transparent,” he said.
“You’ve heard it said that watching legislation get made is a lot like watching sausage get made,” he said. “A lot of truth to that, folks. But I want to reassure you it is all open and transparent. This will be no different. We’ll have all the eyes of Iowa on this as we proceed.”
Although Rozenboom is unsure where he is at on the AEA bill, he agrees with the governor that significant changes are need. He also believes the AEAs are “administratively heavy and performance light.” Regardless, he said he has made the commitment to listen well and be thoughtful and informed to the greatest extent possible.
“And with one primary goal at the end of the day, and that’s to serve our kids well,” he said.