Fund anti-bullying, remedial reading programs

It’s the kind of thing that will make you shake your head and wonder just what’s going on in Iowa government these days.

It’s bad enough every year when the Democrats and Republicans seem to go nowhere fast on the budget until finally reaching some sort of agreement that no one likes and each side blames the other for.

Then comes a double dose of head-scratching news like Iowans got in recent days. Two programs have been approved by state officials – one has been mandated by the Legislature – but as it turns out there is no money appropriated specifically for either. Both concern our kids and that makes things more puzzling. We would love for someone to tell us why this is happening and how it’s going to be fixed, butt we’re not confident.

One issue involves bullying, which has been a surprising point of contention in recent legislative sessions.

Democrats pushed long and hard for anti-bullying legislation but Republicans opposed it. Gov. Terry Branstad came to the rescue – or so it seemed – by using an executive order to create a bullying-prevention office through the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Northern Iowa.

But the governor didn’t direct any money in his budget toward the center, which requested $250,000.

Ben Hammes, the governor’s spokesman, said Branstad expects the center – and thus the anti-bullying effort – to be funded under a proposed $8 million request for new money for the Board of Regents, which oversees UNI, Iowa State and the University of Iowa.

So far there’s been a lot of “no comment” about the situation, including from UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen, who directed questions to the Board of Regents.

That board has not released information about how it would use the $8 million, but spokesman Josh Lehman said the regents were not instructed by Branstad on how to do so. Hammes, meanwhile, said there’s no guarantee of anything.

The closest thing to any semblance of hope is from Alan Heisterkamp, director of the Center for Violence Prevention. He refused to comment directly on Branstad’s decision but said he plans to speak with lawmakers soon about trying to secure the funding.

“All I can say if the process is going to work itself out,” he said.

That ought to make those concerned with bullying in the state feel pretty uncomfortable as a problem that continues to grow in Iowa continues to get kicked down the road, or so it seems to us.

Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, a group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, nailed it in his criticism of Branstad.

“If the governor is serious about bullying prevention in the state, he needs to fully fund research-based solutions to this critical issue,” Monson said.

Which brings us to an equally puzzling situation.

The Legislature, as part of a law passed in 2012, mandated that a summer reading program for struggling third-graders go into effect by 2017. The Iowa Department of Education had requested about $9 million for school districts to fund the program.

But Branstad’s proposed budget doesn’t include any money for the program. Instead, Hammes said, Branstad intends to secure the $9 million funding during the legislative session that begins in 2017 with a special request to lawmakers that it be provided by March of that year.

It’s good that the governor thinks he has the issue covered. But we’re not convinced that’s enough time. And if it’s required by law .

But wait. There’s a loophole.Districts could get a one-time waiver in the law. Good for the districts and convenient for Branstad and lawmakers, but not good for kids struggling with reading and who could be held back a year for failing to attend the program. And the latest data shows more than 7,500 third-graders deficient in reading with 2,800 considered at risk.

That’s why we agree with Sen. Herman Quirmbach, the Ames Democrat and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who called the lack of funding “seriously negligent.”

Again, we’re at a loss to understand how things like these happens. And lawmakers and the governor shouldn’t be surprised if taxpayers’ trust in government continues to diminish when such things are brought to the public’s attention.

Too much is at stake with the bullying and reading programs to hope “things will work out.”

Lawmakers and Branstad should do Iowa’s kids right by making these anti-bullying and remedial readin high-priority items this session.

-Mason City Globe Gazette.

Jan. 20, 2016