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The Iowa AEA State Network: A Model Regional Governance Entity

The Iowa AEA State Network: A Model Regional Governance Entity

Ronald S. Fielder, Ph.D.

 Robert “Bob” Stephens, Ph.D. Posthumous, March 16, 1929 – February 8, 2017

August 25, 2016

Revised May, 2018

This is the revised Executive Summary of a much more comprehensive article/monograph finalized in August of 2016.  The full article is available from AESA and/or Dr. Ron Fielder.

AESA has published this with permission of the author.

No part of this document may be represented in any form or by any means, including electronic or mechanical without permission from the authors.


State and local policy makers in Iowa, much like their counterparts in other states, have continually faced the challenges of achieving equity, efficiency, effectiveness, and more recently, accountability in their state systems of elementary-secondary education.  Toward that end, Iowa developed legislation in 1974 that mandated the initial design and implementation for a new statewide system of Area Education Agencies (AEAs). The mandate became law in 1975 (Chapter 1172, S.F. 1163).   This system was to provide a set of core programs and services, especially for students with special needs.  Since that time, Iowa’s AEAs have evolved through a series of legislative actions, voluntary efforts, and partnerships aimed at improving effectiveness and efficiency.


As authors of the study, it is our premise that the design and implementation that created Iowa’s statewide system and the changes made over the last four decades offer insight and guidelines to all those concerned with establishing priorities in Pre-K-12 public education and other public services.  Issues of equity, efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability have not gone away.

In forming the AEA state system, policymakers made a clear choice to implement a regional governance design instead of a regional government design.  The choice responded to the challenges of implementation in both rural and metropolitan areas. Such a design is similar in nature to what some refer to as inter-organizational collaboratives, strategic alliances, or even joint ventures.

The four-decade history of the state network has shown that this choice allowed for the effective implementation of state priorities as well as the discretionary authority to respond to local/regional needs congruent with state expectations.  Through four decades, the AEA state system evolved from 15 (now 9) agencies that initially operated rather independently to a collaborative consortia of agencies working together in what the authors refer to as the “state network.”  This paper chronicles the evolution and maturation of the state system but also assesses the effectiveness of the state network as a model of regional governance.  It also profiles the work of the AEA state network when it acted in a unified effort to exceed state expectations.  While a priority worthy of future pursuit, it does not cite examples where individual agencies exercised their discretionary authority to engage in exemplary programming.


The primary objectives of this study are as follows:

  1. To assess important features of the legal framework under which the AEA state system functions against commonly recognized best practice standards for public sector inter-organizational collaboratives; and
  2. To assess the extent to which the AEA state network has taken advantage of its discretionary authority to voluntarily enrich statewide programs and services.

Additionally, the following five objectives provided guidance for this work:

  1. To showcase the design features and implementation strategies the state pursued to regularly transform the AEA state system – a system that can serve as a model for regional governance delivery systems throughout the country;
  2. To impress upon state and local policy-makers that the major architectural features of the AEA state system comprise a system of interrelated parts, and that changes in one part will have either a positive or negative impact on other parts;
  3. To remind members of the AEA community that they are the stewards of something that is extra special–they are a critical, indispensable partner with the local school districts and nonpublic schools they serve, as well as with the State Department of Education;
  4. To conduct an assessment of the effectiveness of the actions and capabilities of the state system across multiple models against best-practice standards; and
  5. To profile the work of the AEA state network when acting as a whole.


The 1974 legislation creating the AEA state system was built on multiple interrelated features and was congruent with what was commonly being referred to at the time as the “next generation” of policy strategies.   The system was also built on the concept of “calculated interdependence” among the AEAs, local districts, and the State Department of Public Instruction.

The legislation prescribed the formation of fifteen AEAs that were to blanket the entire state and provide a governance structure, a funding mechanism, discretionary authority, as well as early emphasis on core programs and services for students with special needs.  The creation of this system was to assist local school districts to meet requirements of several landmark federal laws enacted during that period.  Primary among these new requirements was Public Law 94-142, requiring all states to develop and implement a plan that would provide services and programs to meet the educational needs of students with disabilities, a condition for receiving federal funding earmarked to support the legislation.

It should be noted that the state also considered a model where responsibility for implementation of specialized programs and services would be assigned to the state education agency.   This option was eliminated early on as failing to pass the tests of being educationally, economically, administratively, and politically feasible.  Stakeholders feared the development of a large bureaucracy, incapable of serving such a diverse set of school districts.

Profile of the State System

The AEA state system is widely recognized as one of the strongest state systems among the states that have a system of regional service agencies.  During the system’s nearly four decades of existence, it has demonstrated an ability to adapt and respond to contextual changes.  It is a story of an incremental move from a largely loosely coupled set of agencies to the slow but increasing recognition that the future of the agencies was dependent on their functioning as a state network.   In this study, we differentiate between a “state system” and a “state network.”

The growth of the AEA state system was due in large part to visionary AEA leaders who frequently engaged stakeholders in strategic planning.  It became increasingly important for the system to function as a statewide community of practice, thus the evolution of the “state network.”

Several milestones in the evolution of the state system are cited in this paper.   During the 1990s, the system saw the completion of its first strategic plan, development of the first Chapter 28e agreement formally establishing the network, employment of a part-time executive director, the launching of a cooperative purchasing program, and a collaborative effort with the state to complete a third-party study of the state network.

The early 2000s saw the employment of a full-time executive director, completion of a revised 28e agreement (the official Iowa format for formal public interagency collaboration), another state-mandated study of the system, and voluntary mergers of some AEAs, resulting in the reduction of the number of agencies from fifteen to the present nine.  During the second decade of the 2000s, the network developed a policy on collaborative programming among individual agencies, and agreement on priorities of the state network in collaboration with the state and local districts.  In addition, it launched the AEA PD-On-Line Program, adopted a new partnership with the Iowa Department of Education (Collaborating for Kids – C4K), completion of a five-part report (Redefining Relevancy:  The First Two Years of the Redesign of the AEA State System as a Community of Practice), and the filing of another revised 28e agreement.

Currently (2016), the AEAs are engaged in further strategic and redesign activity intended to increase statewide efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness.  Specifically, these efforts have resulted in a significant collaboration focused primarily on (1) development of a statewide protocol on how AEAs will respond to Iowa Department of Education Initiatives; and (2) the pursuit of multiple strategies for long-term fiscal stability.

Such initiatives will enable AEAs to better assess and aggregate local district needs. In addition, through reduced duplication, increased service quality and statewide delivery of services, the AEA network can more effectively influence the development of statewide initiatives.

The AEAs are also developing a template for communication among and between chief administrators and second-level managers, leading to more consistent decisions on implementation, as well as a second template to guide planning. The goal is to assure that a given program, product, or service adds value to the client school and takes into consideration key resources, partnerships and other cost factors.

The Assessment Framework

The authors feel strongly that assessment of the state system/network supports their premise that the system is indeed a model for regional governance.  In addition, they assert that assessment will provide feedback and add value to further system development being undertaken by multiple stakeholders. They also suggest that such an assessment should be based on a theoretical model and a framework for developing standards.

The authors chose the work of Alter & Hage (1993), who propose four different approaches/models for assessing inter-organizational networks.  Those four theoretical models include the Goal Model, the System-Resource Model, the Internal Process Model, and the Strategic Constituencies Model.  The creation of such a framework meets the assertion by Alter and Hage that multiple perspectives are required in any attempt to measure the effectiveness of an inter-organizational collaborative (p. 195).  Such measurements are even more relevant for an organization like the AEA state system that is engaged in multiple inter-organizational collaboratives.  A fifth assessment is also provided that does not fit nicely into one of the four models, but arguably accounts for many, but not all, of the strengths and weaknesses cited in the discussion of the four models – its focus is on the legal framework.

Iowa statutes and administrative code contain numerous expectations for the state’s AEAs.  The authors chose to include only the most vital expectations.  In addition, the legal framework under which the state system functions includes both drivers and enablers, a recognized prized feature of good public policy.   That is, it mandated the inclusion of a number of essential supports (drivers) to achieve certain state policy objectives as well as a number of features allowing individual AEAs to use discretionary authority (enablers) to respond to the differing needs of school districts and nonpublic schools as well as to state expectations.  Both are included in this assessment.

In addition to the framework mentioned above, the authors felt it important that the AEAs be measured on objective standards of best practice.  Toward that end, the literature provided relevant information on characteristics of successful service organizations, effective public-sector inter-organizational collaboratives, and Baldrige and ISO standards.  From these resources, a total of twenty-one characteristics were selected for the assessment of the state system and state network.   For the purpose of this assessment, the twenty-one standards were arbitrarily placed in one of the four models in the Alter & Hage framework.

A five-part balance rating scale is employed in this assessment: (1) Outstanding; (2) Adequate; (3) Need of Minor Improvement; (4) Need of Major Improvement; and (5) Absent.  This rating scale is applied to the actions of both the state and the AEA network in addressing the twenty-one best-practice standards.

The Assessment Results

A summary of the assessment results is provided for the standards in each of the four models.  The summary includes how standards were rated for both State Expectations and State Network Enrichment.

Within the Goal Model the following were considered positives (outstanding or adequate) for both state expectations and state network enrichment:

  • Autonomy granted network consistent with mission
  • Meaningful discretionary authority
  • Effective governance structure for state network
  • State network clear mission and state expectations
  • State network goals and objectives aligned with state expectations
  • Effective checks and balances in place

Also within the Goal Model, one standard was rated as needing improvement, “an effective timely process in place for termination of an under-performing agency,”

Only one best practice standard is included as part of the System Resource Model: “Effective and definite funding is available for state network to achieve state expectations.”  This standard received an “Adequate” rating for State Expectations, and a “Need Minor Improvement” rating for State Network Enrichment.

Within the Internal Process Model, the following were rated as positives (adequate):

  • Clear statement of level of authority governing the network
  • A high level of trust and mutual respect between senior level leadership and by stakeholder groups
  • Strong commitment by the network’s senior leadership and stakeholders to achieve the network goals
  • State network’s compliance with all relevant state and federal laws and regulations

Also within the Internal Process Model, the following were rated as needing minor or major improvement:

  • Effective processes are used by the network in all facets of its work
  • The network conducts timely, policy-relevant assessments of itself
  • The network continuously demonstrates a commitment to invest in its human capital, its greatest asset
  • The network maintains an effective management information system

Within the Strategic Constituency Model, the following were considered positives (adequate) for the state expectations portion:

  • The state network practices from an effective comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan
  • An effective and timely communication system is in place between the state network and principal stakeholder groups
  • The state network maintains transparency in all facets of its work

More variation in ratings resulted in the State Network Enrichment portion of the Strategic Constituency Model.  The following were rated as needing major or minor improvement:

  • The state network maintains transparency in all facets of its work.
  • Maintenance of an effective comprehensive stakeholder engagement plan

More on The Legal Framework

The fifth area of assessment is related to the legal framework.  The 5-point scale was not used in the assessment and discussion of this area.   As cited earlier, the legal framework under which the AEA State System functions is in many respects a remarkable example of good public policy.  It offers numerous important guidelines for those who favor the use of a regional governance, not regional government entity, for achieving equity, efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability; and for the development, production, delivery, and evaluation of a valued public good to be available statewide.  The following are offered as evidence of this favorable view:

  1. The system’s legislative framework is highly prescriptive. Yet substantial discretionary authority was granted to the agencies, especially in programming requirements. This feature allows for a meaningful balance between state expectations and the ability of the AEA state network to be responsive and agile in the implementation of state requirements.
  2. Numerous checks and oversight were created to assure the system’s compliance with state expectations.
  3. The legal framework has a blend of both drivers as well as enablers. Major drivers in the system’s development included the original legislation, the establishment of the accreditation system, the 2000-01 reorganization action, etc.
  4. There is a strong presence of state requirements in the 1996 adoption of Chapter 72, the new accreditation system.
  5. With the crafting of the 1974 legislation, state planners were sensitive to the allocation of functions of the newly formed agencies and the local districts and non-public schools they served.
  6. The legislation reflected a keen awareness of the most effective ways that regional service agencies might provide technical assistance.
  7. Only a limited number of regulatory functions were assigned to the network, allowing them to be seen as primarily service agencies.
  8. As productive collaboration has evolved, the nine AEAs now comprise a functioning state network, featuring both informational and developmental non-quantifiable aspects. Even though there is room for growth, the network has increased its capacity to engage in various continuous improvement and planning activities.

The positive strategic position of the agencies emanates from a foundation that centers on its state charter to promote collaboration, its regional perspective, its boundary-spanning tradition, its tradition as a regional advocate for education, its accessibility to all parts of the state, and the collective intellectual capacity of the state system.

Lessons Learned

Iowa’s efforts to address the pervasive issues of producing and providing essential educational services and programs provide lessons throughout the state.  State and local interests in Iowa now have long-term experience with the design of a comprehensive regional governance entity, the AEA state network.

This experience is important as policy-makers at both state and local levels consider the concept of a regional governance structure as a viable option for the production and provision of other public goods.  Here are some lessons learned:


  1. It was important that the system’s legislative framework included both drivers as well as enablers, allowing agencies to engage in voluntary enrichment activities that support state requirements, but also for meeting the needs and aspirations of those they serve.
  2. Accountability has been enhanced by the state expectation that the agencies document and report their efforts toward meeting program standards.
  3. The state network experience demonstrates performance consistent with research findings on characteristics of inter-organizational collaboratives.
  4. During its evolutions, the system assumed co-ownership with districts and non-public schools for student achievement in high-priority local and state goals.
  5. A series of actions were taken by the Iowa Association of AEAs regarding governance, planning, and decision-making.
  6. The state network established a cooperative purchasing program, offering both social and economic benefits for the schools being served.
  7. The system has set aside funds to sponsor third-party evaluations of the state system’s effectiveness.


  1. There have not been necessary adjustments in the funding formula as the role of the AEAs shifted and evolved.
  2. The current enrollment-based funding formula has been inadequate to honor and support major demographic changes in the Iowa student population.
  3. There are no requirements that the agencies invest in their greatest asset, their human capital.
  4. The state system lacks a comprehensive system/network management information system.
  5. There has been limited success in voluntarily addressing the lack of parity in the organizational capacity of the current member agencies comprising the state network.
  6. There is no provision to dissolve an agency that has a history of not meeting the minimum standards in the current AEA accreditation system.
  7. There is no provision in the current AEA accreditation system to recognize exemplary results achieved by the state network.
  8. There is a need for the state or AEA system to sponsor periodic cost analysis studies of the results of the work of the state network, despite the state’s expectation that the state network achieves “efficiency, equity, excellence, and accountability” in its work.
  9. The system/network has not standardized a method of collecting and archiving a decision record, featuring lessons learned on its joint projects and activities. Failure to maintain such a report denies the leadership and partners an important planning tool for the management of the organizational knowledge of each partner.


Much of the content included in this report covers ground that might be quite familiar to close observers of the AEA state system, but perhaps not so for others.  There is a strong possibility, however, that both students, as well as non-students of the AEA state system, will benefit from the premise of this study that the AEA state network is, for the most part, an example of an effective regional governance entity.

The design of the AEA state system is an excellent example of the “calculus of inter-organizational collaboratives,” where the benefits of the work of the system have outweighed the cost for local schools and for the state.  The voluntary actions by the state network to assume co-ownership of the academic success of students adds a new level of accountability to the state network.

Inevitably in reviewing a project such as this, others might argue there are numerous examples of equally important state expectations for the AEA state network.  In addition, there are a number of significant enrichment initiatives, voluntarily offered by the AEAs, that are missing from the profile that was provided.  The hope is, however, that serious conversations in the state, local, and the AEA community will use the report as a resource in evaluating the current legal framework under which the state system works, how the AEA state network works, what strengths in the current profile need to be preserved, and what aspects eliminated.

Significant socioeconomic, educational and technology trends will continue to emerge and have serious consequences for the state system of pre-K-12 education.  The AEA state network has in the past played a vital role in furthering the state’s goal of achieving equity and efficiency in the state elementary-secondary universe.  In more recent years, it has demonstrated in limited but significant ways that it shows signs of a healthy state network: ­­­­­­­­­alertness (e.g., adapting its priority programming by aligning it more closely with state priorities); and adaptability (e.g., taking advantage of new opportunities to serve the priority needs of the state’s diverse accredited local districts and nonpublic schools).

For the most part, the report does not include a long list of recommendations.  However, the Assessment and the Lessons Learned sections of the report reveal a number of challenges that clearly warrant further consideration.  Primary among those challenges should be the completion of a form of cost analysis and the improvement of the state network’s ability to respond to changing context, as well as to create, analyze, manage, and archive information more effectively.  The ever-changing context and the increased focus on accountability and transparency make both of these challenges critical to the viability of the state system and network.

In closing, we emphasize again that the success of the AEA state system is due in large part to its design features–an enlightened state action that established the necessary drivers that clearly defined expectations for the network, and enablers that gave the state network the discretion to act in voluntary ways that improve state guidelines.  Iowa’s educational system has profited greatly from this experience, and so can other states and policy-making entities!

Author’s Contact Information

Dr. Ron Fielder

3076 Deerfield Drive N.E.

Swisher, Iowa 52338


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