Iowa’s Branstad Grapples With Education Budget, Reading Program

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Several members of the Iowa State Board of Education met with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to share their concern over the lack of funding for the Intensive Summer Literacy Program. This state-mandated help for young struggling readers is not included in the governor’s 2016-17 budget proposal, writes Erin Murphy of The Gazette.

But the program, designed to help students reach literacy benchmarks, must begin in the summer of 2017. Without the program, there will be students who will be 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 says he will work with Iowa lawmakers during the 2017 session to secure the necessary $9 million, but board members said schools will need to do preliminary work this summer in order to have the program ready by 2017.

The discussion included a suggestion by the governor that the early reader program could receive funding at the expense of general funding for all schools. One board member suggested that the program be delayed. Board President Charles Edwards argued that the money may have to be taken from state school funding.

The governor and legislators are attempting to put together a state budget, and within that formula, they must determine what portion of the budget should go toward public schools in the next school year. The two issues are millions of dollars apart, so any additional funding diversions could make negotiations more complicated.

Sen. Pam Jochum (D-Dubuque), president of the Senate, which is controlled by a majority of Democrats, was critical of the governor’s plan to change a manufacturing tax break. The move would reduce state revenues by over $40 million a year which Jochum says will put an even greater stress on a tight budget.

Up to 8,000 Iowa third-graders may be significantly deficient in reading in May 2017, which is when the new law will take effect. If the students are not reading at third-grade level, they could be required to repeat the grade.

The Des Moines Register’s Mackenzie Ryan writes that Rob Barron, chair of the Des Moines School Board, said:

“Reform without resources is ultimately a failure. And we can’t fail these students.”

District leaders worry that the law could become an “unfunded mandate” that districts would have to take out of already lean budgets. The federal mandate is that every district in the state must have a research-based summer program for third-graders who are behind in reading. Schools will be allowed a one-time delay in implementing the program.

The governor noted that he had recommended a 2.45% increase in state funding for schools, which he called a notable amount of additional funding in troublesome economic times. There is still $53 million that must be used to continue the state’s teacher leadership program, which pays for instructional coaches in the state’s schools, and which is one of the primary programs in Branstad’s education reform actions.

Branstad wants state lawmakers to “live within their means” and wait until next year to make the decision on the reading program. WHO-TV reports that the governor is committed to continuing his push to move Iowa’s education system forward. He shared the idea of raising private funds for the summer literacy program.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds applauded the continued success of the state’s STEM initiative. One of the most positive results, she said, is that it brings business leaders and educators together to create the types of programs that will potentially benefit the state’s workforce. Reynolds pointed out that there is growing interest statewide in after-school programs, summer camps, and clubs.