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IOWA: Special ed funding lowered; "expected need rises"

DES MOINES -- Iowa’s Area Education Agencies would see a near $30 million budget cut as they expect an increase in private school students who need special education services under a proposed budget from statehouse Republicans.

The reduction continues years of budget decreases to the agencies, which provide special education and other services to Iowa’s school districts.

Funding to Iowa’s nine AEAs has been cut by at least $7.5 million a year for more than two decades, but lawmakers have periodically increased that number, and the funding has been cut by $22.5 million since 2017. The proposed budget would represent an extra $7 million cut for the next fiscal year.

“This is a pretty devastating cut from what we’ve had, and it is going to show up in numbers … it’s just going to be harder to serve the kids,” said Matt Eide, a lobbyist for the Area Education Associations of Iowa.

The funding was part of the standings budget approved on a party-line vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed. It will need to pass in the House and Senate before being eligible to be signed into law.

Adding to the budget cut, lobbyists for AEAs said on Tuesday they expect to see an influx of private school students because of a law passed this year that will allow parents to use taxpayer-funded education savings accounts to send their student to a private school.

Iowa law entitles students in private schools the right to special education services in the same manner provided to public school students.

If students who requires special education services move to a private school, their AEA is required to provide the services, but the students are not counted in the agency’s funding formula. Kate Walton, a lobbyist for the AEAs, said the agencies have been attempting to change the formula to fund those services for years.

Iowa’s AEAs provided special education services to more than 70,000 students in the last school year, according to a December report. A little more than 800 attended private schools, about 2.2% of private school students.

Jason Plourde, the Green Hills AEA chief administrator, told lawmakers the agency is trying to hire new staff to meet increasing need for special education. But with a reduction in funds and more private school students needing special education services, Plourde said the southwest Iowa AEA would struggle to meet the needs of all its students.

“It really puts us in a very dire situation, not only potentially decreasing services to kids in the nonpublics, which we’re trying to ramp up, but also potentially dilutes (services) to the bigger schools,” he said.

Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, a Republican from Fort Dodge who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is open to changing the formula to compensate AEAs that serve private school students, but that will not happen this year. He said he’d like to see how many public school students leave for private schools and request special education services next year.

The law creating education savings accounts gives school districts around $1,200 for students in the district’s boundaries who attend a private school. Kraayenbrink suggested the state could do the same for AEAs, supplementing their funding based on how many private school students each agency serves.

“I think it’s worth us taking a hard look at in the interim to see if there’s an answer,” he said.


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