District 53 Newsletter: March 22, 2024 Edition

State Rep. Dean Fisher (R-Montour)

On Thursday of Week 11 the House once again dealt with the much discussed Area Education Association reform bill. I agree with the Governor that our special education students deserve the very best. I also believe that our taxpayers deserve the best as well. As I’ve learned more about this topic this year, it’s become clear that we can do better. And it’s also clear that some things need to stay the same.

Iowa is currently spending over $5,300 more per pupil on special education funding than the national average. Our current system, where the money is automatic, and the AEA’s handle oversight of their own services, is unique to Iowa and leaves very little room for accountability. We know that the AEAs are doing critical work for our schools, and we have no intention of leaving school districts high and dry without access to those services. In spite of the Democrats heated rhetoric, that has never been the case in any of these bills. However, we can make changes to improve the system. Our bill now combines the AEA reforms, the Supplemental State Aid increase, and a new minimum teacher pay increase. When all added up, this bill represents roughly a 5% increase to our public school funding. We hope this is the final bill on the subject. It will give school districts more flexibility, provide more accountability on the AEAs, and empower a task force to study how to improve special education in the future.

This bill contains some big wins for schools that the House has fought very hard for this year. This bill increases the minimum teacher pay to $47,500 in the first year and $50,000 in the second year. This will put Iowa’s minimum teacher salary at the fifth highest in the nation. When adjusted for cost of living, this puts Iowa’s beginning teachers in a great spot compared to their peers. It also adds a second tier for minimum teacher pay. Teachers who have 12 years of experience can make no less than $60,000 in year one and $62,000 in year two. The addition of this second tier means a lot of new money particularly for rural schools. And finally, this bill allocates $22.3 million for the teacher salary supplemental pot of money for schools so they can increase veteran teacher pay and help with the pay compaction concerns we have heard from some school districts. This is money that will be built into the base going forward, meaning it will increase with SSA in subsequent years.

This bill will incentivize retired teachers to help fill workforce gaps in schools. It contains a policy that allows retired teachers to return to the classroom without affecting their IPERS benefits. These teachers would be able to return to schools in a limited capacity after just one month of retirement. This will incentivize experienced teachers to return, perhaps as a substitute teacher, and alleviate some of the workforce struggles facing our schools.

This bill raises pay for paraprofessionals. This allocates $14 million to increase pay for educational support staff. The Iowa House fought tooth and nail to have this proposal included in this legislation to raise the pay for our paraprofessionals who do such important, difficult work.

In a nutshell, this bill contains a lot of new money for schools, the largest increase in my 12 years in the legislature. In this bill, we set the SSA percentage increase at 2.5%. The House originally passed 3% SSA and that’s certainly what we would’ve preferred to pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor. However, the silver lining is that with a 2.5% SSA increase, the over $110M increase to put toward salaries, and new funds we plan to allocate towards school safety, all that new money for schools equates to the equivalent of more than 5% SSA.

This bill creates a task force to study the best way to improve special education. The task force will review the current AEA system and look for areas for improvement. They will look for ways to improve services, consolidate buildings, provide effective oversight, eliminate redundancies and ultimately better outcomes for students. This bill also states that the AEA chief salaries cannot exceed 125% of the average superintendent’s salaries within their region. Currently, the nine chiefs each make around $300,000 annually.

There have been a lot of moving parts as this bill has morphed throughout the legislative process. I cannot blame you if you’ve had a hard time keeping track. I want to alleviate some of the concerns that have circulated around past proposals. Because this bill requires school districts to use the AEAs for special education services, there will not be any disruption to special education services. It does not put the AEAs under the Department of Education. This bill does not terminate any employees of the AEA’s. This bill does not prohibit the AEAs ability to perform any of the services they do now. We took a lot of feedback from Iowans in our crafting of this bill. We heard from parents, teachers, superintendents, the AEAs, the Department of Education and more.

As always, I look forward to seeing you at the capitol, or in the district.

Dean Fisher, a Republican from Montour, represents District 53 in the Iowa House of Representatives including the communities of Clutier, Garwin, Gladbrook, and Lincoln.