End of reading program doesn't signal end of need

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A year ago, this editorial board urged the Iowa Legislature to either provide funding for a mandated effort to help third-graders struggling with reading or shelve the program until adequate dollars could be made available. The last thing local school districts need is another unfunded mandate from Des Moines.

Just days ago, lawmakers approved an education budget blueprint that scraps the state’s third-grade retention and summer reading program, passed by lawmakers in 2012. That wasn’t the solution we had in mind.

Amid tight budget times, the state can’t afford the $14 million needed to help schools put in place intensive summer programs to help struggling students. Legislative action also ends the controversial prospect of schools being required to hold back students starting next school year who can’t clear proficiency standards.

From a budgetary standpoint, it’s the right decision for the state and districts.

But from the standpoint of kids in need of reading help and their families, it’s another sad story of broken promises.

As we’ve been told by state leaders for years, third grade reading proficiency is a major indicator of academic success through high school. How will already-strapped districts find the resources to deal with this need? Neither the Legislature nor the governor’s office have offered any suggestions. Where once lawmakers rushed in with new requirements, deadlines and promises of funding, they now seemingly have no more ideas.

We still have roughly one-in-four Iowa third-graders failing to clear the proficiency bar in the Iowa Assessments. We still have school districts coming up short on resources and staff to provide extra reading help to students in need. We still face the stubborn achievement gaps fed in part by those early reading challenges.

And we still have a Legislature unwilling to look seriously at the tax breaks, exemptions and credits that have helped spawn a state budget that’s no longer able to invest in priorities or new solutions for stubborn problems. We may sound like a broken record on this point, but it’s an issue at the core of so many unfortunate legislative decisions this year.

Giving up on this particular reading initiative does not mean lawmakers can give up on public school kids who need intensive reading help. Republican leaders already talking about more tax cuts next year also should be talking about cutting the list of broken promises to Iowa school kids.

And in the meantime, it will be up to local nonprofit, parent groups, libraries and communities to figure out how to bring young readers up to speed during these critical early years.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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