May 27, 2024

Iowa governor signs education bill that has been subject of much debate in Jasper County

Statehouse lawmakers have discussed AEAs, teacher salaries, school funding for months – now the topics have reached their conclusions

From left: Rep. Barb Kniff McCulla, Sen. Ken Rozenboom and Rep. Jon Dunwell speak with constituents during a legislative gathering hosted by the League of Women Voters of Jasper County on March 16 in the Newton Public Library.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds officially signed an education bill into law that not only provides schools a 2.5 percent increase in supplemental state aid, it also raised starting salaries for teachers and fulfilled her top priority this year to restructure the state’s Area Education Agencies, which spurred fierce discussions locally.

Jasper County lawmakers spent considerable time talking about AEAs during a Newton school board meeting in January and at legislative gatherings hosted by the League of Women Voters. The most recent gathering in mid-March was no different. In fact, it was the first topic they discussed.

Specifically, legislators were asked about the task force element of the House’s AEA bill, which did make it through to the final version adopted by Reynolds last week. Sen. Ken Rozenboom said the Senate at the time was resisting the idea to create a task force, which was already created nearly 14 years ago.

The results of the task force were released in a 99-page report in 2011, and it included several recommendations. Rozenboom said “absolutely nothing” happened after the task force completed its work, and there was no legislative action or internal reform. He said the same issues are still prevalent in AEAs.

“We can go through the process of another task force. We’re going to find the same thing. Our recommendations are probably going to be very similar,” he said. “Meanwhile, those kids that were in kindergarten in 2011 are now high school seniors and we didn’t do anything.”

From Rozenboom’s perspective, Iowa lawmakers have a good idea of what the problems are and how they might fix them.

Rep. Jon Dunwell said lawmakers are responding to a bill the governor created, and he asserts the questions she raised to superintendents and AEAs are valid. Dunwell said the provision in the bill that creates a task force will inspect all AEA services beyond just special education.

“We didn’t start the conversation, but in talking with the AEAs we have to finish the conversation,” Dunwell said. “The AEAs, in my conversations with them, have said, ‘You can’t do nothing. You must do something.’ They do not want to have the questions that have been raised hanging over their heads. It’s too difficult.”

Questions raised regarding the AEAs include salaries for administrators. The bill passed by the governor addresses that issue by administering salary caps based on the average salaries of superintendents in their region. Rep. Barb Kniff McCulla said superintendents in her district are looking forward to the task force.

“I had individuals from everybody that was to be involved, before we pushed a bill through, come to the table and they said that was so important to them because they’re all in the room together, they figure things out and then from there move forward,” she said. “But it takes more than just one task force meeting.”

Dunwell said one of the bigger issues that comes up with AEAs in relation to Jasper County is that there are three very small school districts in Heartland AEA. Those schools are of great concern when it comes to moving to an open-market model for services that were once provided by AEAs.

“There is no doubt that in the current system the smaller school districts stand the greater chance at receiving more services than their dollars contribute,” he said. “Your larger districts typically will contribute more dollars and not receive the same amount back. Our system has created that.”

The governor’s education bill, House File 2612, designates 90 percent of all special education support funds for school districts to be used expressly for special education services contracted by the AEAs. The remainder can be used to cover other services.

Rozenboom stressed the need for AEA reform, repeating past comments he made that say the U.S. Department of Education has identified Iowa “needs assistance” for implementation of the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and that if the state doesn’t fix it the federal government will.

“With performance in the classroom of our special needs population, we are sub-par, we are underwater, we are doing worse than much of the country is,” said Rozenboom, who is also chair of the Senate Education Committee. “And that is falling under the eyes of the U.S Department of Education.”

However, those claims have been disputed by David Tilly, a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Education. In an open letter to state lawmakers that was published by Bleeding Heartland on March 20, Tilly said the statement that feds might come in and take over is “patently false.”

Tilly also provided greater clarity to the designation Iowa was given regarding its implementation of IDEA requirements. States are placed in on of four categories.

From best to worst determinations, they include: Meets the requirements and purposes of IDEA; Needs assistance in implementing the requirements of IDEA; Needs intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA; or Needs substantial intervention in implementing the requirements of IDEA.

Which means Rozenboom’s claims may have been overblown and show Iowa is at a level two designation and is not in need of intervention. Even if there was need for intervention, Tilly said the federal government and the Office of Special Education Programs have no authority or even the resources to do so.

In addition to the AEA reform parts of the bill, it also grants teachers an increase in starting pay. The minimum pay for new teachers is now set at $47,500 instead of the initial $50,000 that was proposed earlier in the year. However, the wages of new teachers will be increased to $50,000 the very next year.

Teachers with

12 years experience will also see their minimum salaries increased to $60,000, which will then increase to $62,000 the next year. HF 2612 also grants money to schools to equalize salaries of experienced teachers and non-salaried school staff as well.

Supplemental State Aid for public schools is also increased by 2.5 percent as a result of the law. Reynolds released a statement before signing HF2612:

“I’m proud to sign legislation that further strengthens Iowa’s commitment to students, parents, teachers, and schools,” Reynolds said. “This bill will improve special education for students with disabilities and raise salaries for new and experienced teachers – two foundational pillars of a world class education system which is exactly what we strive to provide for every student in our state. High quality teachers and instruction unlock the potential for student success, and this legislation delivers both.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.