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Utah lawmakers have a tough-love message for elementary schools: Get more third-graders reading at grade level or lose funding.

If for two consecutive years a school district fails to make strides toward the state's goal of having 90 percent of third-graders reading proficiently, then the district will lose money, under a new rule approved last week by the state Office of Education.

At stake is $30 million in reading-intervention funds used by districts to pay for reading coaches, materials and specialized teacher training.

The rule is mandated by a law quietly passed by legislators last winter to enhance an existing K-3 Reading Improvement Program, which has failed to yield results.

"It's a real push so that districts are accountable," said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who heads the House Education Committee.

But education officials say the law reflects an accountability movement gone haywire, hindering instead of helping educators in the classroom. They don't quibble with Gov. Gary Herbert's goal of having 90 percent of Utah's third-graders reading proficiently by 2020, but say it'll take more, not less, money to get there — $100 million or more.

"Not only do we need to hold people accountable, but it's also going to take some additional investment," said State Superintendent Martell Menlove.

Last year, 79 percent of the state's roughly 50,000 third-graders were reading at grade level. No district is hitting the 90 percent mark.

Getting there is possible, believes Menlove, but he estimates it will require:

• Special training for up to 600 elementary principals: $1.8 million.

• Increased collaboration time for 7,000 kindergarten to third-grade teachers: $7 million.

• Training on handling nonproficient readers, for up to 7,000 teachers: $14 million.

• Smaller class sizes, which could mean 326 new teachers: $22.8 million per grade.

• Summer school for struggling readers: $63 million.

Third grade has become a flash point in primary education because it's the stage when children are no longer learning to read but are reading to learn, educators say. If children haven't mastered reading by third grade, they will find it hard to handle increasingly complex lessons in social studies, science and even math.

Children who don't read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than those who read well, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Some states require retaining third-graders not reading at grade level, while others, such as Utah, allow schools to promote struggling readers to fourth grade as long as they are given intensive help.

That help, however, costs money, which districts risk losing if they fail to make adequate yearly progress toward Utah's 90 percent goal.

Granite and Alpine districts, for example, could each lose roughly $1.7 million, and Davis stands to lose about $1.5 million.

Some believe it will take even earlier measures than those proposed by Menlove.

State education board member Kim Burningham, who volunteers at a Title I school where many students are unprepared to read, said in an email that he supports Menlove's recommendations but believes "one of the biggest increased efforts would be found in increased preschool opportunities, especially for the disadvantaged."

Board member Dixie Allen agrees, also calling for "extended-day or extended-year educational opportunities" for struggling learners.

Literacy is a struggle for many U.S. children, with 33 percent of all fourth-graders nationwide reading below basic levels in 2011, according to federal data. For minorities, the picture was worse: Half of black and Latino fourth-graders were below basic in reading.

The picture was better in Utah, where the percentage of on-target third-graders last year rested at: 83 percent white; 80 percent Asian, 68 percent Pacific Islander, 62 percent Latino, 59 percent African American, and 58 percent American Indian.

Districts will have an added challenge in the coming school year because the state is changing the test for evaluating students, said Tiffany Hall, State Office of Education English language arts coordinator. Hall praised the new test as more rigorous and requiring more reasoning from students.

"If we really want (students) to be competitive," Hall said, "we need to make sure our instruction makes them critical thinkers."

Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, said Utah has done well at maintaining reading levels during the past decade, especially since more at-risk students have entered the system, such as English-language learners and those from impoverished homes. Research has shown socioeconomic factors have the greatest influence on whether students arrive prepared to learn how to read.

Everyone realizes Menlove's funding wish list won't be fully funded, she said. During the next few months, the board will fine-tune a spending plan.

In addition, Roberts said the board will "have to come up with one or two strategic ways to address the needs out there."

Twitter: @RayUtah —

Find the right book for your child

The State Office of Education has a page on its website where parents can find the right level of book for their children: