DES MOINES — A proposal that would change the structure and funding of Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies, set general state funding for K-12 public schools, and boost public teacher salaries narrowly passed the Iowa House on Thursday at the Iowa Capitol.

It was the latest legislative attempt by Republican state lawmakers to follow through on Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to overhaul AEA operations and funding, a pitch she made in January during her Condition of the State address to the Iowa Legislature.

Area Education Agencies oversee education of Iowa students with disabilities and offer media and consulting services to schools and students within their boundaries.

On Thursday, the House voted 51-43 to approve the legislation, which is significantly pared back from what Reynolds proposed and similarly does not go as far in overhauling AEAs as a bill that Senate Republicans passed earlier this week.

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Only Republicans voted for the latest House bill Thursday, while nine Republicans joined all Democrats in voting against the bill.

The proposal now goes back to the Senate.

Reynolds and legislative leaders in the House and Senate have been negotiating their differences. House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, called the bill passed by the chamber Thursday night his caucus’ “final position.”

“We wanted to make sure that as we went home this weekend that our schools and Iowans had an idea of where House Republicans stand and where our final position is going to be on these three topics,” Grassley told reporters after the debate.

Asked if that meant the proposal is House Republicans’ “take it or leave it” proposal, Grassley said, “That’s our expectation.”

In a statement issued after the bill passed Thursday, Reynolds thanked House Republicans for passing a bill that represents a compromise that honors the intent of her original proposal.

“Today’s vote by the House paves a path forward to further strengthen Iowa’s education system in meaningful ways,” Reynolds said in the statement. “Every student deserves a quality education that helps them reach their potential.

“By reforming the AEA system, empowering school districts and improving oversight and transparency, we are committing to better outcomes and brighter futures for Iowa’s students with disabilities. They deserve nothing less.”

Sen. Jack Whitver, a Republican from Grimes and the Senate majority leader, said in a statement he is “happy to see progress” on the topics covered in the latest House bill. He said Senate Republicans will discuss the new proposal next week and that he is “looking forward to resolution on these issues.”

What lawmakers said during debate

Democrats levied heavy criticism of the bill and the legislative process that brought it to House debate Thursday night. Republican leaders set a hard deadline for debate to be concluded by 6:30 p.m., which prevented Democrats from speaking on the bill beyond that point.

During their remarks, just shy of two hours of debate, Democrats called on Republicans to ditch the proposal altogether and form a task force to study the topic and Area Education Agencies after the legislative session, and have that task force make recommendations next year.

They also read letters and emails from special education professionals and families who pleaded with legislators to not change the way AEA services are delivered.

Democrats also charged that the entire legislative proposal is simply a political ploy by Reynolds and pushed back at some Republicans’ assertion that their remarks were fear mongering.

“There are consequences to every part of this legislation — unintended and intended consequences,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, the leader of the House Democrats from Windsor Heights. “It’s already happening. And nothing about what we’re doing today is exaggerated or fear mongering.”

Two House Republicans with students who have received special education services from AEAs spoke in favor of the bill.

“I want to make it very clear that AEAs are not failing students. The people that work in the AEAs are not failing the students. My two children have benefited greatly because of the people that work at the AEA,” said Rep. Chad Ingels, a Republican from Randalia who has two children with Down syndrome.

Iowa State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, left, and Iowa State Rep. Sharon Sue Steckman listen to community members speak during an AEA hearing at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. 

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a Republican from Hull, said he asked to be the bill’s manager because he has a 5-year-old daughter with autism who receives special education services from an AEA.

“I assigned it because I knew if this deals with special education, this deals with my daughter’s future. But it also deals with so many of the different families and individuals that I know in the disabilities community,” Wheeler said during debate.

“To say that this is destroying them, an attack on them, disrupting them is ridiculous, in my mind. I would never support or push for any piece of legislation that I thought would harm that community.”

What’s in this latest bill?

The provision passed by House Republicans on Thursday would keep in place much of what they passed last month, according to a summary provided by a House Republican spokesperson, and combine it with funding for schools and increasing pay for teachers.

The plan has drawn strong opposition from educators and parents of students with disabilities who worry it will hurt special education in the state.

Some school superintendents are in favor of the bill, saying they want more control of their special education dollars.

Currently, federal and state special education funding goes directly to the area education agencies, which provide support services to schools. AEAs also receive property tax funding for media services and other education services for schools in their region.

The House and Senate had both sent separate versions of the bill to the opposite chamber, with major differences in how AEAs are funded and how they provide services.


Community members sit on the floor of an overflow room to watch the AEA hearing at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024.

House amendment keeps most special ed funding with AEAs

The latest House proposal keeps much of the components of the chamber’s previous bill in place.

Once fully phased in, it would require schools to spend 90% of their special education funding with the AEAs, while 10% could be used for special education through a third party.

After the first year, funding for media and other education services would go directly to the schools, who would have the option to spend it with the AEAs or with another party.

The House’s initial bill would have sent state special education funding directly to school districts, while requiring them to spend the money with the AEAs. Federal special education funding would stay with the AEAs.

The Senate proposal would allow schools to retain 90% of their special education funding, while 10% would stay with the AEAs. The schools would be allowed to use that funding with the AEAs or with another provider.

Both proposals also call for creating a division of special education in the Department of Education, and the House bill would convene a task force to study the structure and funding of the AEAs and suggest future changes.

The House amendment would raise the starting teacher salary to $50,000 over two years, and provide a fund to increase the hourly wage of paraprofessionals and other support staff.

It also would give Iowa schools a 2.5 percent funding increase for the coming school year, matching Reynolds’ proposed budget.

Democrats: Republican proposals is ‘all politics’

Speaking to reporters before the latest proposal was unveiled — shortly before debate started Thursday — Konfrst said Republicans were “trying to play political games” by not providing Democrats or the public with an amendment sooner.

“It is disgraceful, it is unacceptable,” Konfrst said. “To imagine, that on Thursday of this week, with no necessary deadline … they are dropping a 49-page amendment with the three most important issues to educators and kids in this state, and expecting us to vote on it in a couple hours.”

Lawmakers from both parties have said they have received a flood of messages from constituents in opposition to the bill and a far smaller number of messages in support. Two groups of superintendents sent letters to lawmakers this week advocating both for and against the bill.

Konfrst said Republicans should listen to their constituents and slow down the major changes to the AEAs.

“We don’t work for the governor. We don’t work for the Senate. We don’t work for the speaker,” she said. “We work for Iowans. Iowans have told us they don’t want this. They’re shoving this bill down our throat and it’s absolutely deplorable.”

A spokesperson for House Republicans said lawmakers have debated the issues in the bill several times, and the public has had the chance to weigh in on its components through subcommittee and public hearings.

“These are concepts that have been debated on the House and Senate floor and in the committee process. Iowans have been able to weigh in on these pieces of policy for weeks,” said Melissa Saitz, the House Republicans spokesperson. “We have worked hard to take feedback from the AEAs, superintendents and parents to find resolution on this topic so we can continue with the rest of the priorities that remain this session.”

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