Letter to the Editor- Janice Harbaugh on behalf of Area Education Agencies

To the editor,

I was a very young teacher working with teenagers who had been adjudicated to be delinquent when the Area Education Agency system was started in Iowa in 1974. Through 50 years, I have worked with it, for it, and sometimes against it, at various times in various roles. I am currently on the board of directors representing District 5 at Prairie Lakes AEA.

Fifty years ago, children with special needs were routinely excluded, ignored until they dropped out, expelled, or placed somewhere other than a public school.

In the beginning, the AEAs struggled to find their mission and find professionals who could help classroom teachers in the new field of special education as they advocated for students. The idea that all students could succeed in a public school with the proper assistance, and that all were entitled to a public education was, for some in education, a strange idea. It took the AEAs some time to change perceptions. It took quite a while to develop training for educators, to find or write materials for special classrooms, to gain the trust of parents and staff, and to find the proper structure to deliver services efficiently.

Back then, each school district received state money for special education and the use of the money was up to the administration. There were guidelines but, in the early days, unless special education teachers put their jobs on the line and insisted on accountability and equality of services for their students, the money was often misspent, either through confusion or resistance to special programs. In the beginning years, many administrators did not support the idea, or the work involved, of special education and there were many convoluted, creative reasons for using special education money in unorthodox ways.

Frankly, the special education funding directly received to local schools was seen as the goose that laid the golden eggs. It was used to supplement sports equipment, sports programs, new roofs, and a multitude of projects having nothing to do with the intended purposes.

Special education teachers had no access to the financial books, no knowledge of how much money the school was receiving. Many of us wrote our own curriculums, adapted materials, built adaptive equipment ourselves, bought classroom supplies.

After funding was transferred to the AEAs and there was accountability, the quality of services provided to all students in the school districts served by each AEA grew exponentially. Today, the rich collection of materials and services available for all students, teachers, and parents are something we all can be proud of. I see the results of programs at every board meeting of PLAEA and hear stories from parents.

The AEAs are able to purchase materials for all the schools in each region because they can purchase in bulk. Moreover, the services of professionals are available to each school. Not every school can afford the salary of a psychologist, or a social worker, or a hearing specialist. Contracting for these services, whether contracting for individual services through an AEA or privately, will be more expensive than now, and there is a shortage of these people. Librarians, another crucial service for children, are in short supply.

If the field is opened to private providers contracting with school districts for the various services currently provided through AEA, some school districts will find providers available, and many will not. Private providers focus on urban areas. Rural areas are neglected, simply as a matter of travel time and economics.

If local school districts begin to receive funding directly, each school district will have increased administrative costs to handle the money appropriately. I would assume there will be tight State oversight over the expenditures, but this also takes extra time and staff. With an AEA administering the money, administrative costs are contained and the money is used efficiently.

In 50 years, I have seen light-years of change in education, making it inclusive and supportive of all students. Education has become the front-line in keeping children safe and providing a way ahead for better lives. Fragmenting the efforts parents and professionals have worked years to achieve, making each school district fend for itself to find services, will end in inequality of educational opportunity.

We have come so far. Let’s not step back 50 years.

Dr. Janice Harbaugh, Jefferson, IA