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Commentary: A better path to literacy

Author Angela Engel says expanding the state preschool program, rather than approving a controversial bill, would do more to advance early literacy.

In late February, Colorado legislators killed a bill that would have provided preschool for 3,000 children without any additional expenditure from the state budget.

The measure, House Bill 12-1091, sponsored by Rep. Judy Solano, would have brought Colorado into compliance with the minimum testing requirements mandated by the federal government. CSAP and now TCAP exceed the testing required by the failed No Child Left Behind Act and cost nearly $7 million a year more than needed. HB 12-1091 would have instead directed those dollars to the most effective proven intervention in education – preschool. Each year, more than 8,000 qualified low-income four-year-olds in Colorado are denied preschool because of a lack of funding.

The Colorado House this year passed a “literacy” bill recommending retention for children who don’t pass the third-grade literacy tests. (The measure has a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee Wednesday.) Florida has a similar law, and in 2011 the state allocated $104.6 million for their Just Read Program. In 2010, a review by Politifact showed that nearly $271 million is spent annually in Florida on student retention in the lower elementary grades.

Colorado schools have experienced over $800 million dollars in cuts to education. Not only do we lack the funding for this type of initiative, but we lack the evidence to support it. All evidence-based research over the past century indicates retention is an unsuccessful intervention. Research also proves socioeconomic status is the number one correlating factor to reading test scores.

Instead of providing at-risk children with preschool, a proven and affordable intervention, the majority of our representatives in the House have voted to support this literacy bill.

The difference between these two bills offers a primer into the politics of education. The preschool bill was a grassroots initiative supported by parents, teachers and children’s advocates. The literacy bill is being championed by business groups and powerful education lobbies including Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Stand for Children and the Colorado Children’s Campaign. The Hatcher Group is the national PR firm promoting the “campaign for grade level reading.”

Citizens may want to challenge well-organized policy initiatives. The last national literacy campaign, Reading First, was a $6 billion dollar boondoggle. A thorough study by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) determined that children in schools receiving Reading First funding had virtually no better reading skills than those in schools that did not get the funding.

So one may ask why businesses and funders would again be promoting a costly policy that centralizes control and narrows curriculum? Follow the money, of course. McGraw Hill, publishers of the CSAP, and Prentice Hall have released new product lines in “early literacy.” It has become cheaper to buy public policy than advertising.

The better question is, where are the children in all of this? Common sense tells us that like learning to ride a bike, children learn to read at different times, at different levels and through different means. Love of reading is the greatest determinant of whether a child will someday grow into an adult reader. Government dictates forget the fundamental principle of being human – a person will not learn until he or she is ready to learn, regardless of what big brother commands.

The preschool bill was a very simple chance for legislators to make good on the claim that they value education and are truly committed to all of Colorado’s children. On a party-line vote, Republicans in the House State Affairs Committee said “no.” House members said “yes” to bigger government, increased state spending and higher corporate profits when they passed the early literacy bill.

The literacy bill, like previous “reform” bills, costs more and directs control to the Colorado Department of Education and away from elected local school boards. It’s also redundant, because we already have the Colorado Basic Literacy Act.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.