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Literacy bill gets final House OK

Updated 11 a.m., March 21 – The Colorado House voted 51-12 this morning to pass House Bill 12-1238, the proposal to improve literacy of K-32 students.

Several members came to the podium to recap part of Tuesday’s lengthy debate, although most of today’s discussion focused on whether the program would be adequately funded, and whether money would be better spent on expansion of preschool and full-day kindergarten. The was no fresh discussion of the bill’s remediation provisions.

Twelve Democrats voted against the bill, including Reps. Randy Fischer of Fort Collins, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder, Matt Jones of Louisville, John Kefalas of Fort Collins, Jeanne Labuda of Denver, Claire Levy of Boulder, Wes McKinley of Walsh, Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, Jonathan Singer of Longmont, John Soper of Thornton and Nancy Todd of Aurora. Reps. Randy Baumgardner, R-Grand County, and Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, were excused from the floor session.

Text of Tuesday story follows.

The Colorado House Tuesday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 12-1238, which would create a new state program to improve student literacy in kindergarten through third grade.

Prime sponsors Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, proposed a successful amendment that softens bill language stating that retention of the struggling students was the bill’s “preference.”

The House also accepted an amendment by Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, to exempt children with reading-related learning disabilities from the possibility of retention. The bill already exempts some children with other disabilities and who aren’t fluent in English.

Despite the amendments, some legislators still have concerns about the bill’s costs, the burden it could place on financially strapped school districts and about how early literacy performance would affect school and district accountability measurements. And Tuesday’s amendment may not silence all the objections to retention of students.

The bill is considered one of the key education measures of the 2011 session, and it has been one of the most extensively debated. The House Education Committee spent more than seven hours on the bill during an intense March 12 hearing (see story).

The debate

The House spent nearly two hours in floor debate of the bill.

“This bill is not about retention,” Massey said. “This is really about [helping] the lowest of the low. It’s really about support services for parents.” He and other bill supporters repeatedly stressed the importance of children learning to read by grade three so that they have the tools to succeed and stay in school after that.The bill’s leading critic, Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, led a dogged attack on the measure but failed to win approval for any of her proposed amendments.

At one point, Hamner commented, “I really do have to comment Rep. Solano for her passion.”

Among other changes, Solano proposed stripping all references to student retention from the bill, giving parents a veto over holding a student back and delaying the bill’s implementation until state preschool and full-day kindergarten programs are fully funded.

“Retention is not the best policy for students. … This targets poor and minority students,” Solano argued.

Hamner and others argued for keeping some form of retention in the proposal. “It’s in the bill because it’s attention-getting” and will focus parents and teachers on the need to help struggling readers, she said.

Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, was Solano’s main ally in the debate, focusing on financial questions. She called it an “unfunded mandate” and highlighted potential problems for small rural districts.

Solano also chimed in on that theme. “You can’t take $5 million and stretch it thin across 178 school districts.” Speculating on the chances the bill will make an impact, she said, “It’s going to take a miracle because of all the other unfunded mandates we have on our schools.”A wide selection of Democratic and Republican members rose to speak in favor of the bill, some saying that even if the bill is imperfect, improving early literacy is too important and can’t wait. Still, some supporters raised concerns about the possible impact of the bill on school districts. No Republican members spoke against the bill.

The bill

The measure would require all districts and schools to provide the teaching and special services for K-3 students to ensure that children have adequate reading skills by third grade.

Starting in 2013-14, schools would have to assess students’ reading competency with tests approved by the Department of Education. The department also is supposed to help districts to implement the program, and the bill creates a grant program to help districts pay for the new program.

The bill requires that individual reading assistance programs be created for students with “significant reading deficiencies” and sets out detailed requirements for informing parents about and involving them in the process. Detailed rules for the program would be issued by the State Board of Education.

While the bill retains the possibility of holding back struggling students, the amendment passed today removes the bill’s original language about retention being the state “preference” for such students. The state’s current early literacy law allows retention, and about 2 percent of students now are retained every year, mostly in the early grades, according to CDE.

It’s estimated that 17,000 Colorado third graders can’t read proficiently.

What’s next

Hamner noted that the bill already has taken months of work and interest group negotiations. In its original incarnation, the bill proposed mandatory retention for students who scored below a certain level on reading tests.

As the bill moves to the Senate, “It’s probably going to take even more people” and more time to negotiate the bill, Hamner said. Among unresolved issues is how success in helping struggling readers will be calculated in annual district and school performance ratings.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.

In other action

The House gave final 33-31 approval Tuesday to House Bill 12-1118, which would require that school district collective bargaining sessions be open to the public.

Inside the key amendmentThe Massey-Hamner amendment to soften the original preference for retention affects several parts of the bill, but a change on page 11 illustrates the differences.

The original bill read: “If the student’s reading skills at the end of the school year are below the minimum level for reading competency established by the state board for the student’s grade level, state law recommends that the student not advance to the next grade level, and the parent and the local education provider shall together decide whether the student will advance to the next grade level.”

The amendment changed that section to read: “If the student’s reading skills at the end of the school year are below the minimum level for reading competency established by the state board for the student’s grade level, state law recommends that the student ‘advance to the next grade level only if the student, despite the significant reading deficiency, is likely to be able to maintain academic progress at the next grade.’”

The bill allows students to be held back in any early grade. As passed, the bill retains the original language requiring superintendent approval for promoting third graders with significant reading deficiencies.