It’s Time for a Conversation: Navigating Changes in Education

This article was published in the Ames Tribune.

Leaving an entire system on autopilot does a disservice to students, school districts, and the taxpayer.

Governor Kim Reynolds has introduced legislation aimed at reforming the state’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs), stirring vigorous debate among the public. Some of the bill’s reforms could directly affect property taxes, but their significance lies in broader governmental reform efforts. As largely independent agencies in the space between state and local governments, AEAs raise important questions about cost effectiveness and streamlining operations on one hand, and transparency and public accountability, on the other.

The nine AEAs in Iowa provide an assortment of educational and related services to school districts, not only working with students who have special needs, but also conducting teacher professional training, performing graphic design and media-related services, and delivering other resources. In fiscal year 2023, their total budget was over $529 million, with funding from a mix of federal, state, and local sources. Property taxes provide 19 percent of AEAs’ revenue.

The sheer size of these agencies, with thousands of people on the payroll, and their intimate involvement in the vital area of education justify a serious conversation about how best to utilize taxpayer dollars and deliver services. Each school district should have a say as to how to meet the needs of its students, and the state must have some level of oversight authority.

In her Condition of the State speech, Governor Reynolds asserted emphatically that her intent is not to reduce funding for educational services, especially for students with special needs, but to allow school districts flexibility to serve their students and stop paying for services they aren’t using. They could continue to utilize services from their own AEAs, look to other AEAs in the state, contract with outside providers, or hire their own professional staff within the district, all under the observing eyes of the Iowa Department of Education.

The reaction to Reynolds’s announcement from some Iowans displays a baffling, if also predictable, attitude. If the services provided by Iowa’s AEAs are critical, the need for transparency and accountability is even more important, not less. The public’s strong feelings about changes to the system reinforce the necessity for the state to ensure it performs effectively. Instead of recoiling at the hint of review, education stakeholders should rush to the table for serious discussions. Simply accepting the status quo and leaving an entire system on autopilot does a disservice to students, school districts, and the taxpayer.

Where services provided by the AEAs aren’t critical, reconsidering the expense is in keeping with Governor Reynolds’s focus on streamlining government, which can also potentially lead to property tax relief. In fiscal year 2020, local governments collected over $6 billion in property taxes from Iowans. School districts – the leading driver of property tax bills – accounted for close to $2.5 billion of that. Education also consumes nearly 56 percent of the state General Fund budget.

In recent years, Iowa’s state government has modernized, and its bureaucracy has been reduced. During the last legislative session, the legislature passed the first comprehensive state government reform measure in 40 years. For instance, Iowa consolidated 37 executive branch cabinet agencies down to 16. Governor Reynolds has also launched an executive-led review of Iowa’s regulatory code to eliminate excessive and out-of-date regulations. The legislature is currently considering the recommendation of the Boards and Commissions Review committee to eliminate or consolidate 111 out of 256 Boards and Commissions.

Making changes to our state’s education system is also nothing new. This governor and Iowa’s legislature recently expanded parental choice: reducing barriers to open enrollment, expanding charter schools, and implementing a universal education savings account (ESA) program known as Students First Education Savings Accounts. During their first year, utilization of ESAs has far surpassed initial projections, demonstrating the demand for flexibility and options in education.

Continued increases in spending prove the priority Iowa’s leaders place on education.  As the legislature considers AEA reforms, maintaining the quality and accessibility of essential services for students with significant needs deserves attention. Schools require more than just money to do that, however; they must have greater flexibility to determine how to best serve their students.

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