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Iowa House speaker not looking for AEA funding fix


House Speaker Pat Grassley speaks to reporters on April 11 (photo by Laura Belin)

Iowa House Republicans are unlikely to push for changing the new state law on services currently provided by Area Education Agencies (AEA), House Speaker Pat Grassley indicated in his latest public comments on the topic.

While some GOP lawmakers are concerned about a provision that could divert tens of millions of dollars from the AEA system, Grassley told reporters on April 11 that giving school districts more control over media and education services funding was consistent with the bill’s original purpose.

AEAS COULD LOSE TENS OF MILLIONS A YEAR

House File 2612, which Governor Kim Reynolds signed on March 27, requires school districts to spend all of their special education funding with AEAs in the 2024/25 academic year. Districts will have to keep spending 90 percent of special education funds with AEAs in subsequent years; that provision was a priority for House Republicans during negotiations on the bill.

However, AEAs will no longer be guaranteed to receive funds now earmarked for a range of media services (including assistive technology for special needs children, printing, digital resources, and lending libraries) and educational services (such as professional development and support for teachers on literacy, math, science, and talented and gifted programs).

For the academic year that starts this July, school districts will be able to use 60 percent of their media and education services money on any general fund need, while just 40 percent of those funds must be spent with AEAs.

Beginning in July 2025, school districts will be able to spend 100 percent of their media and education services money on any general fund expense. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, that funding now totals $68 million each year ($32.3 million for media services and $35.7 million for education services). That’s a potentially huge loss for AEAs, if school districts decide to spend the money on other needs, such as reducing class sizes or giving staff a raise.

SCHOOLS “APPRECIATE THAT PART OF THE BILL”

Speaking to reporters early this month, Republican State Representative Brent Siegrist suggested that members of his caucus had the impression school districts would be required to use media and education funding to purchase those services, even if they contracted with other providers besides their AEA. He characterized the language in the final bill as an “oversight” and said House Republicans were looking for other legislative vehicles to put more strings on the funding.

But during Grassley’s weekly media availability on April 11, the speaker didn’t concede that his caucus wasn’t aware of the funding change. He asserted that he “had more meetings than anyone with all of the interested parties on AEAs for three straight months,” and said no one had raised concerns with him about putting the media and education services funding into school districts’ general funds.

Grassley added that school districts don’t have special pockets in their general funds for the services AEAs now provide. (Under longstanding state law, that funding bypassed the school districts and went directly to AEAs.) “So the question that’s being asked of us is to try to somehow go into schools’ individual general funds, create side pots of money within their general funds, [and] take away that local control and flexibility,” the speaker explained.

When House Republicans sought feedback from their districts on the final AEA legislation, Grassley said, “most of the superintendents and administrators that we’re hearing from like that part of the bill.” Legislators are hearing from home that it’s “extremely important” to keep that piece in place.

Asked whether he was aware during the AEA negotiations that media and education services funding would go into a general pool, Grassley noted similar language was “floating out there” in an AEA bill the Iowa Senate approved on March 18. “The objective of the bill all along is to continue to empower school districts to have a level of flexibility,” he said. “And we’re hearing back from schools they appreciate that part of the bill.”

An earlier version of the AEA bill, which House Republicans passed in late February, would have required media and education services funding to be spent on those services. Grassley downplayed the importance of the change in the final version of House File 2612: “You can put words in there and just say it should be spent on this, but the money—I don’t think there’s confusion that the money was always going to the general fund to give school districts flexibility.”

SOME AEA SERVICES IN QUESTION

Even if House Republicans were seeking to change that aspect of the AEA law, Reynolds told reporters on April 9 that she was “absolutely not” open to telling school districts what to do with their media and education services funding. Her initial proposal also would have restricted the AEAs to offering only special education services, and would have eliminated code sections that provide funding for media and education services, period.

Critics of the AEA bill have pointed out that some media services are critically important for special education. For instance, the AEAs’ media services bucket pays for vans that deliver assistive devices to schools. What will happen to students who need certain media or technology, if their school district opts out of contracting with the AEA for those services?

It’s also not clear how challenging behavior or autism support teams, which help some teachers and child care providers, will be funded under the new system.

Other unanswered questions include: how will AEAs deal with heavy staff turnover, when they don’t know how many personnel they will need to hire next year or how many services they will have to provide for school districts?

Bleeding Heartland will continue to follow these issues. Iowans with insight on how the new law is affecting AEA services to students, families, or educators can contact Laura Belin confidentially.





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