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Education board implores governor, lawmakers to fund early reader program

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DES MOINES — A state-mandated school program for struggling young readers is in desperate need of funding, state education board members told the governor Thursday.

Multiple members of the Iowa State Board of Education told Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday that they are concerned by the lack of funding for the Intensive Summer Literacy Program in the governor’s 2016-17 budget proposal.

The program, which must go into effect in the summer of 2017, is designed to help struggling young readers reach literacy benchmarks to prevent them from being held back in third grade.

“We’re concerned about the impending disaster that’s going to occur in May of 2017, and that’s one that we’re all going to be blamed for: the board, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the Legislature. We’re all going to share in the blame,” board member Mike May said. “The question is how we can mitigate that as much as possible.”

Branstad said he hopes to work with the Iowa Legislature to secure $9 million in funding for the program during the 2017 session. But state education board members said schools need to do work this summer to have the program ready for launch next year.

“I want you to understand the timing,” Branstad said to board members at Thursday’s meeting in the Grimes state office building.

“For school districts, the timing is very real,” board president Charles Edwards countered.

Edwards called the program “massively underfunded.”

During the discussion, the governor asked board members if they would prefer the early reader program funding come at the expense of general school funding. One board member suggested it may be prudent to delay the program’s implementation.

“I would argue that (program funding) may have to end up coming out of the supplemental (state school funding),” Edwards said. “But that’s not my place.”

The governor and lawmakers put together the state budget, and they are trying to determine how much money to budget for public schools in the next school year. The negotiating parties are starting millions of dollars apart, so removing more money to divert to another program could complicate negotiations.

“We are going to work very hard to make sure we make good on that commitment to the third-graders,” said Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, president of the Democratic-controlled Senate. “There has to be something in the budget to help at least get ready. … We know they need at least some start-up money to prepare for that (program).”

Jochum also criticized the Branstad administration’s move to tweak a manufacturing tax break, which will reduce state revenues by more than $40 million annually, saying that decision put a bigger pinch on an already-tight budget.

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said Republicans in control of the House are not yet crafting their budget proposals.

“I know that there is a great deal of interest of people having the resources there that are necessary for reading programs that prepare kids to move forward,” Upmeyer said. “We’re just not at the point in the (budgeting) process.”

Branstad was hesitant to embrace delaying the program’s implementation. He said that could be done next year, if the state still cannot devote the necessary resources.

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