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Literacy bill passes Senate 35-0

Updated 10:15 a.m. – The state Senate Friday morning gave unanimous final approval to House Bill 12-1238, the early childhood literacy program.

In the works since last summer, the bill was initially controversial because of concerns that it placed too much emphasis on retention of third graders with low reading skills.

But extensive Senate amendments gave the bill a form that was praised by Democrats and Republicans alike in final remarks before the vote.

House sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, was involved in the Senate negotiations, and the amended bill is expected to be approved by the House in the session’s waning days.

Text of Thursday story follows, including details on bill provisions.

The Colorado Senate Thursday gave preliminary voice vote approval to House Bill 12-1238, the early childhood literacy measure that is the highest profile education bill of the 2012 session.

The measure passed without amendments, despite efforts by Democratic Sens. Evie Hudak of Westminster and Irene Aguilar of Denver to tweak the definition of retention in the bill. The motions prompted a long semantic debate over whether the bill improperly defines retention as an educational “intervention.”

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, argued against the amendments. “What this bill is about is trying to get kids to read by the end of the third grade,” he said, “I hope that we don’t get caught up in the semantics of this because that’s not what this bill is about.”

The Senate started to debate the bill at mid-morning, but discussion was delayed until afternoon because copies of a lengthy committee amendment hadn’t been distributed to senators.

After passing the House, what’s now called the Colorado READ Act faced barriers in the Senate, given a skeptical Democratic leadership and lobbying from school district interests who saw the bill as too restrictive and underfunded.

But major amendments approved last week by the Senate State Affairs Committee seemed to meet most of the concerns about the bill. Heath was a major driver behind the amendments.

“We did the best we could to change the tone of this bill so that this is a literacy bill,” Heath said on the floor Thursday.

Here are the key elements of the amended literacy bill:

• A focus on students with a “significant reading deficiency” (to be defined by the State Board of Education). The House version of the bill also covered students with “reading deficiencies,” defined as those reading below grade level but above the level of significant deficiency. With the new focus, the bill is expected to apply to about 24,000 students statewide.

• Use of interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The House version of the bill included about $5 million in funding. That’s retained in the Senate version, to be used for professional development grants, putting the total price tag at about $21 million. If the bill passes it would be the first significant education reform bill in the last five years with significant funding. Proposed changes in the bill’s legislative declaration specifically note the need for financial resources.

• Easing of some of the more detailed requirements for parent consultation and notification contained in the House version.

• While the proposed amendments retain specific references to retention as an option for struggling readers, the language is somewhat softened compared to the House version. Superintendent review of retention decisions for third graders remains in the bill, but parents would have veto power over retention of students in kindergarten through second grade.

• Addition of specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school and tutoring, for K-3 students with reading problems. Districts would have to use those tactics to qualify for the per-pupil funding.

Tax holiday bill squeaks out of committee

After chewing on it for more than an hour, the Senate Finance Committee approved House Bill 12-1069 on a 4-3 vote. The measure is the proposed sales tax holiday for back-to-school purchases.

The bill goes next to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where there are likely to be questions about the estimated $4.5 million state revenue loss that measure would cause. And two Finance members who voted yes, chair Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, indicated they still have concerns about the bill.

The finance panel did amend the bill so the holiday would occur during only two years, rather than the five years in the House version of the measure.

The tax holiday would kick off in the first calendar year after state personal income grows by 5.0 percent. That’s expected to happen in 2013, meaning the first holiday would be in 2014. The tax break would cover school supplies not exceeding $50, clothing not exceeding $75 and computers not exceeding $1,000 and would be available during a three-day period every August.

The break applies only to the 2.9 percent state sales tax. Cities and counties could choose whether or not to participate.

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