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Literacy bill advances on 10-3 vote

The House Education Committee Monday gave a full hearing – more than seven hours – to House Bill 12-1238, the proposal that would require improved literacy programs in the early elementary grades, create a preference for retention of third graders with weak reading skills and add early literacy results to the factors in the state’s accountability system for rating schools.

Gov. John Hickenlooper testifies, flanked by sponsors Rep. Tom Massey (left) and Rep. Millie Hamner, center.

Gov. John Hickenlooper testifies, flanked by sponsors Rep. Tom Massey (left) and Rep. Millie Hamner, center.

After dozens of witnesses and extensive committee discussion, the bill passed on a 10-3 bipartisan vote. The only no votes were Democrats Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, Judy Solano of Brighton and Nancy Todd of Aurora, all veteran committee members and retired teachers.The committee approved some amendments to the Colorado Early Literacy Act, but it was clear from both witness testimony and committee discussion that lots of people want more work done on the bill.

Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said, “We still have amendments we’re working on. … There’s still a lot to be done. This is a work in progress.”

The serious tone of the hearing and the level of detail and analysis provided by many witnesses were in contrast to the rushed atmosphere and uninformed discussion that sometimes mark committee hearings.

Nobody’s flatly against HB 12-1238; witness after witness agreed that early literacy is a moral imperative and essential to the subsequent academic success of students.

The bill is being pushed by a coalition of education reform groups and business groups, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Stand for Children and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The bill is being heavily promoted by lobbyists for those groups.

The Hickenlooper administration supports the bill, and the measure’s sponsors include a bipartisan mix of influential lawmakers in both houses.

Hickenlooper himself was the leadoff witness, telling his personal story of dyslexia and being held back in the seventh grade.

“I felt strongly that there shouldn’t be mandatory retention” in the bill, Hickenlooper said. But, he added, “There is no stronger indicator of how a kid is going to do in school” than being able to read by third grade.

But a long list of education interest groups, school districts, education, special education and literacy professionals have concerns with the bill and raised lots of polite concerns during the hours of testimony Monday.

The highest profile provision of the bill is its preference for holding back third graders who have the weakest reading skills, called “significant reading deficiency” in the bill. That standard would be defined by the State Board of Education.

For a third grader who falls in that category, parents, teachers and school administrators would be required to discuss and decide whether to hold that student back. If they decided a student shouldn’t be held back, the case would be reviewed by the district superintendent, who could decide to hold a student back.

In its original form, as proposed last year, the bill would have made retention mandatory. But there was heavy opposition to that – and reported concern from the governor’s office – so Massey dropped the mandatory idea.

Even the bill’s current retention preference raised concern for many witnesses and some committee members. A couple of mothers brought their children along to the witness table to oppose the bill’s retention provisions.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton

After testimony ended and committee deliberation began, Solano proposed an amendment to strip the retention provisions of the bill. It failed on a 5-8 vote.The other concern that dominated the hearing was the potential cost of the program. The current version of the bill proposes taking about $5.4 million from tobacco settlement monies and from the existing Read to Achieve program.

Massey and cosponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County and a former superintendent, said they’re looking for additional funding. Revenue from state school lands reportedly is being eyed as a source of funds.

Solano and Todd kept raising questions about cost, and several school district witnesses made the same point.

Finally, Rep. Carole Murray said, “I guess I’m getting a little uncomfortable with all the questions about money. Why should it take (more) money to teach them … the one thing they should be getting in school?”

Harrison district Superintendent Mike Miles testified in favor of the bill. His district has a policy to eliminate social promotion in five years by holding students back in third, fifth and eighth grades.

Asked about the cost, Miles said, “It does take a lot to get a student to read when they’re far behind, but it can be done. It does take some resources. We’re doing it … mostly because we prioritize our funding in support of early literacy.”

Other witnesses raised concerns about how the bill might affect special education students, about the data reporting requirements it would impose on districts and about how the bill would integrate – or conflict with – the state’s overall system of academic standards, testing and school accountability.

And late in the hearing, one witness even questioned whether the bill is necessary.

Republican Peggy Littleton, a former State Board of Education who’s now an El Paso County commissioner, said, “Let’s use what we already have in place,” citing the existing Colorado Basic Literacy Act and the state content standards. What’s really needed, Littleton said, is better training of teachers in teaching literacy.

The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.