Iowa lawmakers are pulling the plug on a state-required summer reading program for illiterate third-graders — before it has been implemented. They cite a shortage of state funding and questions about the initiative's effectiveness. Since there will be no program, struggling students will not be required to complete it before advancing to fourth grade.

If lawmakers are ditching this effort to improve early literacy, they should offer an alternative to replace it.

After all, it was the Iowa Legislature that added the reading requirements to state law only a few years ago as part of Gov. Terry Branstad's quest to create "world-class schools" in Iowa. It is difficult to be a global education leader when 25 percent of third-graders cannot read at grade level.

The governor knows this. That's why his 2011 blueprint for education reform specifically advocated ending "social promotion for third-graders who read poorly." Advancing children through school who are unable to read "puts them at a huge disadvantage for the rest of their lives."

Yet the final law was weak, allowing many students to be exempted from participating in a summer program and allowing schools to continue promoting to fourth grade those who did not make progress. Then lawmakers delayed implementation of the whole thing, refused to fund it and are now abandoning it.

While a lack of funding is no excuse to pull the plug on the summer reading program, there are concerns about whether it is effective. The governor drummed up money to pay for a pilot program and study last year that recruited students from dozens of school districts across the state. None of the approaches significantly improved reading proficiency, according to an analysis from the Iowa Reading Research Center. The challenges included a lack of qualified, experienced teachers and low student participation rates.

Public dollars should not be spent on efforts that do not work, but it is up to state officials to figure out what does. And policymakers should not altogether abandon the idea of holding back third graders who cannot read.

Though opponents of mandatory retention are concerned about damaging a child's self-esteem, it's hard to imagine anything more damaging to self-esteem in the long run than being illiterate. Fear of repeating a grade may prompt families to take more seriously the importance of early reading skills, because those must be cultivated at home. Parents can buy books instead of video games, visit libraries and read with children instead of watching television.

A solid majority of Iowans, nearly 70 percent, believe third-graders with significant reading deficiencies should be required to repeat the grade, according to a 2016 Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll. People understand reading is the foundation for all learning and must be mastered to move forward in education.

Iowa cannot ignore what amounts to a literacy crisis in this state and simply allow students to move along through school. They will struggle with all subjects and be more likely to drop out altogether. If lawmakers abandon their own plan for improving reading skills, they must set forth and actually fund another one.

This editorial appeared in the April 17 edition of the Des Moines Register.

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