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Educational Service Agencies: Review of Selected/Related Literature

The purpose of this article is to provide an extensive description of Educational Service Agencies (ESAs) across the United States. The article will be divided into sections that include (a) a description of ESAs, (b) services offered by ESAs, (c) the organizational structure of ESAs, (d) funding for ESAs, and (e) ESA partnerships.

By Dr. Larianne Polk, Chief Administrator at ESU 7 in Columbus, Nebraska

Description of Educational Service Agencies

At the time of this study, there were 43 of our 50 states with formally created ESAs all of which are marginally different in terms of how their governance, funding, and services are offered. States mandate the existence of ESAs and their funding resources may come from the state institutions like public schools, tax levy authority, private revenue, state and federal grants, or foundations. Service options differ as well, and how those services are determined can range from rich proactive data-driven processes, to immediate reactions, to requests by the member districts.

Educational service agencies (ESAs) began in the United States as early as 1820 with the establishment of an ESA in Delaware and then 1849 in Oregon (Levis, 1983). Since then, the creation and use of ESAs have grown in the United States. Now there are a total of 41 states with ESAs. The names of each ESA in the various states differ as do the number of ESAs found in each state (See Appendix).

As illustrated in the Appendix, many states use the phrase educational service agency interchangeably with intermediate unit. The National Commission on the Intermediate Administrative Unit Department of Rural Education, in 1955, released a report describing the purpose and authority of the intermediate unit, which read:

The intermediate unit is not a substitute for local community school districts. Local districts are a necessary part of educational organization if control is to be kept as close as possible to the people served. Modification of present intermediate units to better serve education should in no way weaken local districts or retard efforts to reorganize them into desirable community districts. Intermediate units function best when local school districts are strong. Experience shows that effective intermediate units strengthen local districts. Local community school districts are not subordinates of an intermediate unit. They are completely autonomous as defined by state law and full partners with the intermediate unit and state education department in providing educational services. (National Commission, 1955, p. 151)

Educational service agencies are among the least studied and comprehended element of K-12 public education. One study in the 2001-2002 academic year reported in the Encyclopedia of Educational Leadership and Administration (2006) concluded that $3.5 billion were spent to directly support education, $17 billion was managed as flow-through dollars from the federal and state governments in terms of grants and government-funded programming and provided training to over 1.1 million staff members (English, 2006, p. 322).

Types of ESAs

There are three types of ESAs as described in Stephens (1979), Levis (1983), Stephens and Keane (2005), and English, (2006). Type A are Special District ESAs who provide a layer of school government between the State Education Association (SEA) and a group of Local Education Associations (LEAs). They provide some services to LEAs, but also carry out some functions of the SEA. Type B are Regionalized Agencies that are extensions of the SEA. These agencies “tend to be created and eliminated in response to the fiscal condition of state departments and the reliability of federal funding sources for specific programs (English, 2006, p. 322). Type C are Cooperative Agencies where two or more LEAs are members of an ESA to provide one or more common services. Texas, New York, and Ohio are examples of Type A, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Massachusetts are Type B, and Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Nebraska are Type C (Levis, 1983, p. 2).

Definition of County Offices of Education

Before the establishment of ESAs, many county offices across the country were responsible for some of the services the ESAs provide their member districts now. In the 1930s to 1940s, service agencies were established in two different forms, one was the county office of education, and the other the supervisory union. County offices of education served only the county in which they were located, while the supervisory unions were not confined to those same boundaries (Stephens & Keane, 2005).

The county office of education was in place as an arm of the SEA. The primary officer of the county office of education was known as either county superintendent of education, county school superintendent, or county superintendent of public instruction. These primary county officers were established in state constitutions around 1835 and were common in most states by 1870. Some county offices were established after the reorganization and consolidation of other county offices, such as the auditor or probate judge (Cubberley, 1934).

The role of the county offices of education varied, but in general their purpose was to, (1) maintain minimum educational standards, (2) maintain some consistency in educational programs, (3) be a liaison between the SEA and LEA to allow for two-way communication of information, (4) provide for general educational leadership in instructional planning, and (5) advocate for education at the county government level (National Education, 1955, pp. 141-142).

Definition of Supervisory Union Administrative Center

The supervisory union was established largely in the New England states as these states had a fairly weak political position. These units existed by in large to share superintendents between school districts. Knezevich (1984) defined the supervisory union as “a collection or federation of town school districts initially formed by permissive legislation…” (p. 191). The differences between the administrative unions and the county education offices led to disagreements and debate. Largely, the difference was that the unions dealt more with the district boards and the county offices dealt with the districts themselves to promote capacity (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 11).

Definition of ESAs

Toward the mid to the end of the 1940s, the county-intermediate unit began to be redesigned. At that time there were “32 of the 50 states…[who] had organizational changes that can reasonably be regarded as having major significance in the operation and functioning of the state system” (Fritzwater, 1968, p. 5). In the 1960s, the county education offices, or intermediate agencies, began a redesign for three reasons: (1) federally driven rural school district reorganization (2) added incentives by the federal government to school districts who collaborated to promote educational services funded by federal dollars, and (3) federal pressures placed on states to address quality and equity (Stephens & Keane, 2005).

It was not long after these pressures, along with the mounting of court cases challenging the funding of school-age education as well as equitable education for students with special needs that the ESAs, or intermediate units, were established. Beginning in the mid-1960s, there were three basic types of intermediate units with a three-tier structure. The first tier were supervisory units made up of two or more member school districts who shared a superintendent. The second tier were county intermediate districts or county superintendents. The third tier was multi-county or regional intermediate districts (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 23). ESAs were created by “enactment of special state legislature or administrative rule to provide programs and services to a collection of schools and local school districts, or to serve state interests in other ways” (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 1).

The definition of educational service agencies continues to evolve as they continue to develop into the agencies they are today. The more current definition by Stephens (2001) is, “A regional public elementary-secondary education agency authorized by state statute or administrative code that exists primarily to provide instructional support and management and planning programs and services to local educational agencies” (p. 13). Stephens and Keane (2005) describe educational service agencies as the invisible partner for school districts. The Individuals with Disabilities statute of the U.S. House of representatives (1997) defines ESAs to be “a regional public multiservice agency authorized by State law to develop, manage, and provide services or programs to local educational agencies” (Education of Children, 1997, para. 1401(5)).

Mission of ESAs

As discussed previously, ESAs differ marginally from state to state, but the common expectations remain similar. Each state’s ESA provides supports and services, which promotes efficiency, quality, and access to programs and services. Every ESA in every state has its own mission, but they all “…contribute to solving the pervasive and challenging issues of assuring equity, efficiency, and quality throughout the state system of elementary-secondary education” (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 89).

Services Offered by ESAs

The most successful ESAs are those that offer services more effectively or more efficiently than the school districts could do on their own. Service agencies can provide more cost-effective services to specialized groups than their LEA counterparts simply due to the scale of size, or the economy of scale. When serving school districts, ESAs can “improve staff development and information retrieval, can serve as a link to other resource agencies, and can provide broad organizational support…In general, collaborative functions should involve mandates established by the state education agency” (Levis, 1983, p. 9, 10). Levis further describes services offered by ESAs as accessible, enhancing opportunities for education, interpreting and providing feedback on education policies, and providing cost-effective programming and services (1983). Each ESA may also operate specialized schools in response to requests by LEAs. They may also provide technical assistance for the SEA but will not give the ESA the authority or responsibility to levy sanctions against non-complying LEAs (English, 2006; Stephens & Keane, 2005).

Many states use advisory groups or committees to assist in the service planning process although not a statutory requirement for most. Every state utilizes its ESAs for different services, but special education support is among the most common across the states, although not the only service offered, as illustrated in Figure 3 and further described in the subsequent sections herein. Many agencies focus on services that have the most impact on student achievement, these areas are growing in number and content. There is a growing occurrence of state legislative decisions to specify mandated core services provided by ESAs. These core services are often aligned with state school improvement strategies, or efforts to establish research-based systems to support school improvement (Stephens & Keane, 2005).

Figure 3. Services offered to Local Education Agencies by Educational Service Agencies. (Cook, 2003; Levis, 1983; Stephens, 1979; Stephens & Keane, 2005).

  • Administrative/Management Support Career and Technical Education Cooperative Purchasing Crisis Intervention
  • Curriculum Development Data Processing Dropout Recovery Program Federal Programs
  • General Academic Instruction Grant Writing Health
  • High Ability Learner/Gifted and Talented Leadership Training
  • Learning Resources Library/Media Migrant Education Pre-Kindergarten Professional Development Research and Development Special Education
  • Student Testing and Evaluation
  • Telecommunications and Technology Support
  • Vocational and Occupational Support

Service agencies serve all sizes of school districts from rural to urban. Although the needs of the rural districts continue to be primary interest for ESAs in general, there is a growing need for services to urban/metropolitan ESAs to address the unique needs evident there (Stephens & Keane, 2005). Levis (1979) explained the roles of ESAs were also to include educational leadership, planning, service delivery, advocating for educational legislation at the federal, state, and local levels, continuous improvement, and coordination of regional services.

The Strengthening and Improvement Law (2015) of the federal government defines an ESA as “a regional public multiservice agency authorized by State statute to develop, manage, and provide services or programs to local educational agencies” (para. 18). Services provided by ESAs are customized to the LEAs they serve but can be organized into three categories, (1) services to meet the needs of students with special educational needs, (2) services that require specialized personnel or facilities, and (3) services allowing for economy of scale.

Services to Meet the Needs of Students with Special Educational Needs

In 1965, the United States Congress provided, by declaration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), financial assistance to local educational agencies who serve children with special education needs (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 1965). The United States then passed Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, later to be renamed to Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1997, which ensured a free and public education to all students, specifically students with special needs (Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975). This additional requirement, ten years following the passage of ESEA, provided more relevancy to ESAs across the country.

Every school district in the United States has students whose educational experience require additional support. These supports are provided by the school district either with district hired and trained personnel, or by contracting theses services out to external agencies. ESAs have the authority to provide these special services ranging from special education to high-ability learner support.

Each ESA is autonomous to the others and has the flexibility to provide the support that best meets the needs of the districts they support. Special education services offered by ESAs tend to be those that support low incidence disabilities and with whom the certificated personnel are limited in number and difficult to recruit. These personnel are most typically provided to school districts by contracting the staff hired by the ESA to provide the service at the school districts. In smaller school districts, there is not a need for full-time providers. In these situations, ESAs often schedule the contracted personnel in multiple school districts in order to first, meet the needs of the school districts, and second, to do so in the most efficient manner keeping the costs to the school districts more manageable than if those districts were to hire full-time personnel. Services accessed may include speech language pathology, school psychology, deaf education, teacher of the visually impaired, braillist, resource teacher, occupational or physical therapy, or early childhood special education. There is a growing need for behavior specialists, mental health practitioners, counselors, and services for students who are high-ability learners.

The state of Iowa established by law the Area Education Agencies (AEA) in 1975 with the passage of Iowa’s Chapter 1172, S.F. 1163. This statewide system provides a core set of services to its school districts, especially services necessary to support students with special needs. These services in Iowa’s AEAs are aimed at “improving effectiveness and efficiency” (Fielder & Stephens, 2016, para. 1).

Services that Require Specialized Personnel or Facilities

 ESAs offer programming to school districts in addition to personnel who may be on the campus at the local education agency or may be a separate program on its own campus. Small rural school districts in particular, do not have the resources to create this type of program for the very small number of students it may affect at any time. ESAs have the ability to create a cooperative with multiple school districts with similar needs at a scale that is appropriate to the districts. These programs may be alternative school for students who are not in special education but need programming more customized to their needs, school for students who are deaf, programs to support students who have dropped out and have re-enrolled, life skills programs for students with severe disabilities to learn vocational and life skills, mental behavioral health programs anywhere from day school to residential program, and preschool/pre-kindergarten. Schools are also accessing their ESAs to support them in career and technical education, crisis intervention, school safety and security. Highly specialized personnel are required for development, consultation, and design of school district technology infrastructure, telecommunication systems, data processing, data storage, and digital citizenship/security training.

Specialized professional development may include curriculum development, assessment literacy, leadership training, administrative and management training, technology integration, research and development. Missouri’s Regional Professional Development Centers, nine in all, are responsible for educator quality and development. Each regional center has its own menu of professional development but all address English and language arts, math, English language learners, and technology. The degree to which each of the centers address the academic areas of professional development is dependent upon the districts they support (“Regional Professional,” n.d.).

Services that Allow for Economy of Scale

ESAs are charged with providing services that emphasize economy and efficiency. While each school district may have the staff available to research vendors for specific goods or products, the more rural districts do not have the numbers in terms of students, teachers, or revenue to exercise economy of scale. This is where the regional ESA can help. The ESA may negotiate on behalf of several rural schools collectively to gain a lower price whether it be for a specific product, a license fee, a training opportunity, or registrations. This economy of scale is very useful for all districts, regardless of size, but most opportunistic for the smallest. Some supports ESAs provide as a result of their ability to access economy of scale would be E-rate filing (a Federal Communications Commission program whereas school districts apply for discounts to telecommunications and internet costs) (E-rate: Universal, 2018), cooperative purchasing (a competitive bid catalog of school supplies ranging from pencils to roofs for schools and track surfacing), copy/production (copying, laminating, binding, poster printing, and other print shop services), product/licensing consortiums (computer software), grant writing, online digital media licensing, volume technology purchasing, and construction management.

Nebraska’s ESUs have a statewide organization, Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council (ESUCC), which works to make available to ESUs supports and services with the economy of scale in mind. The ESUCC provides a cooperative purchasing program to its ESUs, a repository of courses for distance learning, as well a variety of educational software solutions. The ESUCC is able to use the total number of students when working with vendors to access a more economic pricing structure for the school districts in the state (“Overview of ESUCC”, n.d.).

Organizational Structure of ESAs

Governance of ESAs. The governance structure of each state’s ESA is markedly different. As reported by Levis (1983) and Stephens and Keane (2005), the boards of directors of ESAs are comprised of member district superintendents, elected members, and/or appointed members.

Figure 4 describes how the selection of these members differs. Nebraska elects its board members during the general election schedule by eligible voters within the service area. Each service area is divided into districts with a specific number of members representing each district (Educational Service, 2012).

Figure 4. Selection Methods of ESA Governing Boards (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 63).

Governing boards of ESAs have similar responsibilities as those of other public education organizations such as school districts. The duties in common are the appointment of the chief executive officer, hiring or appointing of the other staff upon recommendation of the chief executive officer, budget adoption, and oversight of the operation of the ESA (Stephens & Keane, 2005). There are some very specific areas of responsibility for some ESAs. In California, the county superintendent is the employer of the staff in their ESA, rather than the ESA board. The Iowa Area Education Agency (AEA) boards have mandated collaboration meetings with the regional community colleges to coordinate programs. Oregon’s Educational Service District (ESD) boards have the authority to audit, revise, and approve school district budgets, and levy taxes or appropriate school district funds (Stephens & Keane, 2005, pp. 64-65).Staffing

As mentioned in an earlier section, all service agencies are different and need to be in order to effectively meet the expectations set upon them, either by their state, county, or school districts. When staffing the service agencies, the methods of hiring and who to hire are also different. The chief executive officer, also referred to as the administrator or chief administrator, is appointed by the board in most states, but may be elected by registered voters in others. In three states, Arizona, Illinois, and California, the voters of the counties decide if the CEO will be elected or appointed (Association of Educational, 2000). The CEO, in general, has the responsibility of serving as the executive officer on the board, preparing the budget, recommending staff for board approval, and assuring state and federal compliance. In Nebraska, however, the chief administrator is not an officer on the governing board, and in California, the CEO can appoint certified staff and the county superintendent is the employer of all employee negotiations (Association of Educational, 2000; Educational Service, 2018). New York ESAs have tremendous oversight authority over the school districts as they serve as a representative of the state education commissioner (Stephens & Keane, 2005).

Funding for ESAs

Educational Service Agencies are funded with similar mechanisms: levy local taxes, state aid, service contracts with districts, and state/federal grants. Some ESAs may benefit from state funding, while others are funded largely by contracts with their LEAs (Stephens & Keane, 2005). Funding for ESAs is significantly different from state to state but can be categorized into four sources, state, local/regional, federal, and other. Each source of funding contains vast differences as to how the funds are appropriated, as illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Types of Funding Sources (Stephens, 2001).

School districts in the Type B service agency are funded with appropriations from the SEA, while Type C are initially funded at the onset of the creation of the ESA and continue to receive a limited state allocation intended for only fundamental expenses or state initiatives. Type A service agencies experience formula-based state appropriations, or the sale of services and products (English, 2006).

Levy Authority

The authority to levy property tax is not given to every state. Nebraska, Michigan, and Oregon are among the states who can levy taxes in order to cover operating expenses and to implement services approved by member school districts (Educational Service, 1965; Stevens & Keane, 2005, p. 76).

State Aid

 Although the specific formula used in states who appropriate state aid to ESAs differ, they are similar in that the amount they get is very specific to the conditions of the formula, and that there are multiple variables contained within each formula. Formula based appropriates are most common when there are state-established core services to be carried out by the ESA. Contracted services and grants are not included in the funding formulas as they generate their own dollars. The variables used in these formulas include the student count in the ESA region, a fixed amount appropriated for each ESA, number of member public school districts in the region, costs of the core services, number of schools, number of nonpublic school students, geographic size, and dollars necessary for rental of facilities (Stephens & Keane, 2005). Each state appropriating dollars uses a combination of different variables. Iowa’s Area Education Associations, for example, use core service expenses and student enrollment to calculate the amount of state aid they will receive (School Aid Formula, 2012).

States who provide state aid use a formula to provide equal state funds for each child who will benefit from the efforts of the service agency…However, the absence in most of the state aid formulas is consideration of the wealth of a service unit, or recognition of the other contextual differences (Stephens & Keane, 2005, p. 94). These funds may be aligned to the school improvement agenda or needs as part of an accreditation process. In some states, additional funds were allocated to ESAs who address the needs of struggling schools as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

ESA Partnerships

Many school districts using the supports of ESAs are rural. These districts are either too small or too rural or both to provide the necessary services their district needs on their own, therefore, they rely on partnerships. This opportunity for partnering is one reason why ESAs were created. Partnerships within an ESA structure typically take one of two forms: intra-education partnerships and inter-agency partnerships. The former includes opportunities for school improvement resources and support, technology collaboratives and consortiums, professional development alliances and consortiums, special education cooperatives and supports, and business affairs cooperatives for purchasing and other school infrastructure supports. These partnerships are facilitated by the ESAs and designed to provide efficiencies between school districts. The latter type of partnership, inter-agency, is where partnerships are facilitated between agencies and organizations with common needs. These may include partnerships with industry and business, human services/resources, and general governmental agencies (Stephens & Keane, 2005).


County offices of education, along with the educational landscape, began to change between 1940s and 1960s. These changes led to the establishment of ESAs across the country. Although ESAs are different in terms of specific processes for governance, funding and services, there are some general similarities. Each is charged with providing cost effective services and support to promote efficiency, quality and access to programs and services. The differences allow for autonomy and the ability to address districts within states that best meets their needs. Although the members of the governing board are selected in various ways, each is established to provide a foundation for their work, supported by regulation at the ESA level. The funding for ESAs are generally by levy authority, contracts with LEAs, federal/state grants, or state aid. Funding is reflective of the services and operational cost needs of the ESA. Finally, service options are just as different as the school districts the ESAs support. Although the methods used to identify the services offered by the ESAs are also different, the services are a reflection of the needs of the member districts. ESAs are a vital part of the educational service delivery, for both rural and urban districts. In an era of growing concerns for education spending, ESAs offer an equitable alternative to provide needs based educational support at a cost-efficient manner to school districts of all sizes.


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Cook, R. C. (2003). Kansas rural schools and education service centers: A 21st century solution. Perspectives: A Journal of Research and Opinion About Educational Service Agencies, 9, 21-28.

Cubberley, E. P. (1934). Public education in the United States. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Definitions, La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 1942 (1977). Retrieved from

Education for All Handicapped Children Act, Pub. L. No. 94-142, 89 Stat. 773 (1975)

Education of Children with Disabilities, 20 U.S.C. § Ch. 33 (1997). Retrieved from

Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Pub. L. No. 89-10, 79 Stat. 27 (1965)

ESAs by state. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2017, from AESA: Association of Educational Service Agencies website: links.cfm

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States with ESAs, Their Name, and Quantity in the State

State Name  



Alaska Southeast Regional Resource Center
Special Education Service Agency (SESA) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 2
Arizona County Educational Service Agency (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Arkansas Educational Service Cooperative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 15
California County Office of Education (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 21


Connecticut Cooperative Educational Services (CRES)
Area Cooperative Educational Services (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 6
Florida Educational Consortium (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 7
Hawaii Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  


Idaho Cooperative Service Agency (Title 33 Section, 1967, “Idaho School,” 2015)  



Illinois Regional Office of Education
Intermediate Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d., (Illinois State Board of Education, 2017.) 56
Indiana Educational Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  


Iowa Area Education Agency (AEA) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  


Kansas Education Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Kentucky Educational Cooperative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 8
Louisiana Education Service Agency (Definitions, 1977)  



Massachusetts Education Collaborative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 29


Michigan Education Service Agency
Intermediate School District (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 55


Educational Service Cooperative
Intermediate School District (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 14
Mississippi Association for the Improvement of Schools
Center for Educational Development
Education Initiative Consortium
Regional Education Agency (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 7


Education Plus
Special School District
Center for Educational Excellence (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 3
Montana Regional Educational Service Area
Education Service Region
School Services
Office of Public Instruction (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 6


Nebraska Educational Service Unit (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



New Hampshire Educational Services, Regional Services & Education Centers (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 4
New Jersey Educational Services Commission (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



New Mexico Region Education Cooperative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 9


New York Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 37
North Carolina Education Alliance (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



North Dakota Education Cooperative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 9
Ohio Educational Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  


Oregon Education Service District (ESD) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Pennsylvania Intermediate Unit (IU) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 29
Rhode Island Educational Collaborative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



South Carolina Research and Education Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 1
Texas Region Education Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Utah Educational Services
Educational Development Center
Education Service Center (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 4


Vermont Educator Development Center
Professional Development Academy
Learning Collaborative (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 3
Virginia Public Education Consortium (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  



Washington Educational Service District (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 10


West Virginia Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.) 8
Wisconsin Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  


Wyoming Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) (“ESAs by State,” n.d.)  




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