Iowa House Republicans advance new AEA, teacher pay plan

Iowa House Republicans advance new AEA, teacher pay plan



Community members listen Jan. 28 to Jessica Roman of North Liberty talk about the importance of area education agencies during a public forum at the North Liberty Library. Due to an overwhelming number of participants, people had to sit in the hallway to listen. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)
Community members listen Jan. 28 to Jessica Roman of North Liberty talk about the importance of area education agencies during a public forum at the North Liberty Library. Due to an overwhelming number of participants, people had to sit in the hallway to listen. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Democrats, parents and education officials applauded, but still expressed reservations Thursday over a new proposal advanced by Iowa House Republicans in how services are delivered by the state’s education agencies.

Iowa House Republicans held the first legislative hearings on their newly filed bills on area education agencies, teacher salaries and state K-12 school funding.

Advocates and lobbyists for education groups, including the AEAs, told lawmakers in a House subcommittee that the new plan represented significant progress compared with initial proposals by Gov. Kim Reynolds and a bill advancing in the Iowa Senate.

The new House bill removes a key piece of Reynolds’ proposal that would allow school districts to contract with other parties, like a private company, to provide special education support services to students with disabilities.

Iowa’s area education agencies would continue to be the sole provider of special education support to school districts — but the funding structure and provision of other services would change under the House proposal.

Cindy Yelick, chief administrator of Heartland AEA, and Heather Sievers, an Altoona mother of a student who has used AEA special education services and is the founder of Advocates for Iowa’s Children, said the House plan was an improvement but could still create gaps in services across the state.

“The fundamental, core issue with the bill still is that we’re kind of backtracking in time, moving away from an integrated model,” said Sievers. “Which I think is what people are worried about.”

House Study Bill 713 passed out of the House Education Committee on a 15-8 party-line vote, clearing a legislative deadline and keeping it eligible for debate on the House floor.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, chair of the committee, said the bill remains a work a progress and pledged it would see more changes as it moves forward.

“I think we have the opportunity to improve student outcomes with this,” Wheeler said. “We have the opportunity to improve the system. And we had the opportunity, I think, to get wins, not just for students, but for our schools in general as well.”

He noted he has a daughter with autism, and that the issue is “very near and dear to me personally.”


Rep. Skyler Wheeler looks on during a Jan. 31 meeting of the Iowa House Education Subcommittee to discuss a bill that would allow Iowa school districts to opt out of an area education agency special education programs. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)
Rep. Skyler Wheeler looks on during a Jan. 31 meeting of the Iowa House Education Subcommittee to discuss a bill that would allow Iowa school districts to opt out of an area education agency special education programs. (Nick Rohlman/The Gazette)

He said the state has “a chance to improve student outcomes if you can keep some of that money closer to the school district, the school which is going to know the students a little bit better and know some of their needs a little bit better.”

House lawmakers last month declined to move Reynolds’ bill forward after hearing from parents and school administrators concerned that her proposed overhaul would lead to worsened outcomes for students with disabilities and less support and diminished services for students and teachers with a piecemeal, fee-for-service approach.

Reynolds pitched the bill as a key piece of her agenda for this year’s session. She said the change is necessary as test scores of Iowa students with disabilities have lagged but the state sends a comparatively high amount of money on those students.

The Senate late Wednesday advanced Reynolds’ original proposal, Senate Study Bill 3073, out of a committee but with an amendment.

What does the House bill do?

Under the House proposal, federal special education funding still would go directly to the AEAs. But beginning in the 2025-26 academic year, funds for special education support coming from state sources would be kept by the school districts.

The districts still would have to spend that money with the AEAs for special education services, but could receive those services through any AEA in the state.

Starting with the 2025-26 school year, school districts could choose where to spend their funding for media services. The same would happen the following year in how to use funding for education-related services, like teacher training and curriculum.

The bill would move local AEA governing boards to an advisory capacity, and require state approval of AEA budgets. The salary for AEA administrators would be capped at the average salary of all superintendents in the district served by the AEA.

The House proposal would still create a new division within the Iowa Department of Education to oversee special education, but with a smaller scope: 58 new employees — five at each AEA and 13 in Des Moines. Reynolds’ proposal called for hiring 139 employees, funded through $20 million moved from the AEAs to the state.

The House bill also calls for establishing a 10-member task force to study the AEAs.

Democrats request public hearing

Democrats echoed some parents and education groups who said more changes are needed to the House bill. They expressed concerns it would remove a district’s ability to receive mental health therapy services from AEA social workers.

Access to mental health therapy is desperately needed, particularly in rural areas, they said, noting that the Heartland AEA responded with a crisis team to meet with students, families and staff in the wake of last month’s deadly shooting at Perry High School.

“I do applaud House Republicans for bringing folks to the table. That’s what should have happened in the first place,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, told reporters. “ … So just the fact that the House Republicans brought in some stakeholders doesn’t mean that they’re listening to Iowans or that they’ve done the homework on determining if this is even a necessary change.”

House Democrats disagree with the premise that AEAs need wholesale change.

“I think it would be best if we scrapped this instead of trying to polish it, because it would still achieve the same dismantling of our AEA services around the state,“ Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, said during the committee meeting.


Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids
Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids

House Democrats requested a public hearing be held on the bill. Wheeler said Republicans were working to schedule a hearing.

Teacher pay increase advanced

Increases in baseline pay for teachers and staff would be increased and phased in over two years under a plan that advanced Thursday in the Iowa House.

House Study Bill 714 would increase the minimum salary for first-year teachers to $47,500 in the 2024-2025 school year and $50,000 in the 2025-2026 school year.

Education advocates who spoke at a legislative hearing praised the phased-in approach, saying it would give districts time to plan and adjust their budgets.

“We were happy to have an opportunity to work with legislators on the most appropriate and best way to accomplish the goal set up by Gov. Reynolds” to increase the minimum salary to $50,000 for all beginning Iowa teachers, said Melissa Petersen, with the Iowa State Education Association — the statewide teachers union.

The House Republican salary bill also would boost the minimum wage for school support staff to $15 per hour, another provision that was met with praise by education advocates. The bill also appropriates $22 million in supplemental funding for districts to use to increase the salaries of veteran teachers and support staff.

The bill unanimously passed out of committee and is eligible for debate in the House.

House Republicans also advanced a bill to give a 3 percent increase to state funding for K-12 education for the coming year.

Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report

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