With summer study almost done, test looms for Iowa literacy law

Iowa requirements for third-grade reading proficiency already delayed a year

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As experiments in 44 Iowa school districts looking for the best ways of honing young pupil’s reading skills come to an end, lawmakers face the quandary of paying for the summer programs that’ll soon be required statewide — or whether even to keep them.

Researchers in the coming weeks will dive into data from this summer’s $1.9 million reading study, which the governor did not include in his 2016-17 budget request but paid for instead through public and private fundraising.

The study supports a controversial state literacy law that, beginning in spring 2018, requires third-graders who fail a reading test to either repeat the third grade or go to a summer program.

The Legislature passed the law after data from the state Department of Education showed about 8,000 public school third-graders — nearly one in four — didn’t meet reading proficiency on the Iowa Assessments.

School districts will have to provide these summer programs, and dozens including Cedar Rapids participated this summer in research aimed at preparing for the upcoming mandate.

“We are primarily concerned with making the summer programming as effective as possible,” said Deborah Reed, a principal investigator for the study and director of the Iowa Reading Research Center, which is conducting it.

“We are not advocating for third-grade retention,” she said. “We remain silent from a policy perspective.”

Some, however, are not so mum on the retention law, the study or how it was paid for.

“If Gov. (Terry) Branstad would quit creating redundant, privatized reading programs that duplicate University of Northern Iowa reading programs, then he wouldn’t have to steal money from UNI to pay for it,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo.

Danielson pointed to UNI’s Richard O. Jacobson Center for Comprehensive Literacy, which for years has worked with schools to improve literacy and includes a Reading Recovery Center it touts as a “highly successful early intervention program.”

“Talk about adding insult to injury,” Danielson said about creating this summer’s study.

The Iowa Department of Education said it needed $9 million to pay for the statewide reading programs. But Branstad didn’t include any of that in his proposed 2016-17 budget, instead saying he would pull together donations for this summer and request legislative support in the future.

In February, the GOP governor announced he had raised the $1.9 million needed to move forward this summer, with more than $1.3 million of it in private gifts.

Public contributions included $250,000 from the Iowa Department of Education; $100,000 from the Iowa Reading Research Center, housed at the University of Iowa; and $100,000 from the Iowa Board of Regents.

The regents’ contribution came from foundations at the three public universities — $45,000 each from the UI and Iowa State University, and $10,000 from UNI.

ISU’s contribution came from an estate bequeathed a decade ago, according to ISU spokesman John McCarroll.

The UI Foundation transferred $45,000 to the summer research program after pulling those funds from the UI Provost’s Office, said UI Foundation spokeswoman Dana Larson. She said she’s not aware of other examples of statewide use of university foundation dollars.

UNI’s $10,000 came from two funds — $5,000 from the President’s Fund for Excellence and $5,000 from the College of Education Dean’s Fund for Excellence, which previously has been used to help students attend conferences, encourage participation in professional development activities and create other learning opportunities.

UNI Foundation President Lisa Baronio said former UNI President Bill Ruud and Provost Jim Wohlpart felt the study “was a very worthwhile investment.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said that might be the case, but the state needs to pay.

“If we are going to roll this program out for the whole state … then the state needs to step up and provide funding,” he said. “I was very disappointed that the governor failed to include such funding in his FY2017 budget.”

That, he said, was a key reason the Legislature delayed its implementation of the law from 2017 to 2018.

And although Quirmbach said he supports this summer’s research, “it is disappointing that the governor is chipping away at the resources of other important public programs to pay for the pilot study.”

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, took broader issue with the retention law and summer program, also criticizing the way it is being funded.

“It was ill-conceived to start with,” he said. “And I don’t know if we need to continue with the program.”

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