The Senate has tentatively approved a bill that could lead to some school districts holding back first graders who fail a reading test.
The measure was based on Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal for improving fourth grade reading scores by holding back third graders known to be having trouble reading.
“We need to be getting to these kids as early as we can,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, who proposed changing the focus of Senate Substitute for House Bill 2140 from third graders to first graders.
Kelly’s amendment was endorsed by Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee.
“It’s fairly well known that through the third grade children are learning to read,” he said. “After the third grade, they’re reading to learn.”
Abrams said he considered Kelly’s amendment to be “friendly.”
The Senate endorsed the bill on a voice vote shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday. A formal final action vote is set for Wednesday morning.
Abrams said an earlier version of the bill had stalled in the education committee after several members argued that it constituted a mandate and was likely to do more harm than good.
Those concerns were resolved, he said, by adoption of a number of amendments in the committee and during the floor debate aimed at exempting students in special education or English-as-a-Second-Language classes, allowing students to take the test more than once, limiting the mandate to school districts with below-average reading scores, and giving parents the final say in whether their children were promoted.
“The concern that what was initially proposed did not include parental involvement ended up being resolved in this bill,” Kelly said.
The amended bill also would allow teachers to declare whether students who fail the test should be allowed to advance.
It wasn't immediately clear how many first graders might be affected by the bill or what the cost might be for school districts. Neither question was raised during the debate.
Child advocates had testified against the initial bill, arguing that state resources would be better spent on early childhood development programs, many of which have long waiting lists.
Shannon Cotsoradis, chief executive for the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children, welcomed the changes to the bill.
“Tonight’s floor debate in the Senate underscores the commitment to early intervention and to investments in early learning programs as a path to literacy,” she said. “The amendments will also provide the flexibility to act in the best interests of individual students rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all approach.”
The bill calls for spending $10 million — $5 million a year for two years — on a grant program aimed at helping children learn to read.
It also would set aside $1 million a year for two years to reward school districts with the most improved reading scores.
If the bill passes on final action, as expected, it would be sent to the House, where it’s likely to be referred to a conference committee.
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Some experts at Kansas universities are questioning Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to cut spending on established early childhood development programs in order to fund a proposed new initiative aimed at improving the reading scores of the state’s fourth-graders.
Though the governor hasn’t yet provided much detail on how the new Kansas Reads to Succeed program would work, he has said he favors requiring third graders to pass a reading test before being advanced to the fourth grade.
‘Irresponsible and cruel’
“Passing children up the grade ladder when we know they can’t read is irresponsible and cruel,” Brownback said in his State of the State speech to the Legislature last month.
But reading specialists at two Kansas universities said research has shown that holding children back a year often does more harm than good.
“Children who are retained, typically, are more likely to not graduate from high school,” said Suzanne DeWeese, a reading recovery specialist with the Jones Institute for Education Excellence at Emporia State University. The university trains many of the state’s K-12 teachers.
“Children who aren’t learning to read need better instruction, not a repeat of a curriculum that’s already failed them,” she said. “And the sooner they have access to that instruction, the better.”
Diane Nielsen, an associate professor of education at the University of Kansas, said waiting until students were in third or fourth grade to address reading deficiencies was shortsighted.
“To do what it appears the governor wants to do, it would need to be done in the grades below fourth, beginning with support in preschool,” said Nielsen, a specialist in reading instruction.
“The emphasis should not be on a single year’s test results,” she said. “It should be on early intervention because there are so many things that need to be in place before a child reaches the fourth grade. Reading is not the simple process that people tend to think it is. It can be very complicated.”
Brownback, who campaigned for governor promising to boost 4th grade reading skills, told KHI News Service that he has been disappointed by the proficiency ratings.
“They’ve been fairly level for a long time,” he said. “We need to do better.”
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, the governor’s chief spokesperson, said details of Brownback’s new initiative would be made public in a bill that would be introduced by a legislative committee probably sometime this week.
“We reviewed models for potential legislation from several other states, including Florida,” she said. “Some aspects will be similar, some will be different and some completely unique to what other states have done to help struggling readers.”
The governor’s plan has been endorsed by the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank based in Wichita.
“What we’ve seen in places like Florida, which has had practices like this in place for over a decade, is that when you set up the (reading) test in third grade, the (school) districts and teachers see the significance and start building in interventions early on,” said James Franko, the institute’s director of policy.
“So instead of waiting for students to reach the third grade, they’re taking a soup-to-nuts look at how they do reading for (kindergarten) through third grade, identifying those students who are struggling, and getting them the help they need so there isn’t this rude awakening when, all of a sudden, they get to the third grade and can’t read with their peers,” Franko said.
Like many Kansans, Rick Cagan spent much of last weekend reading and listening to news reports about the gunman who killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cagan had a professional reason for learning what he could about the tragedy. He runs the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Kansas Chapter office in Topeka.
“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
According to initial news reports, the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from a personality disorder or had been diagnosed with Asperger’s, a form of autism. However, there is no indication that he had the kind of severe mental illness suffered by others responsible for mass shootings.
Jared Loughner, the man convicted of shooting former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing six others, for instance, suffered from schizophrenia, a mental illness that causes disordered thinking and delusions.
And James Holmes, the man accused of shooting 12 people to death and wounding 58 others last summer at a movie theater in a Denver sought mental health treatment before the attack, according to multiple news reports.
Mass shootings nearly always rekindle debates about gun control and the adequacy of the nation’s mental health system. Commenting on the later, Cagan said many Kansans with mental illness are not getting the early treatment they need to avoid crises.
“More than 60 percent of the adults who have a serious mental illness are untreated,” he said, noting that in Kansas half the admissions to the state hospitals for the mentally ill involve people who’ve had no previous contact with their community’s mental health center.
In Kansas, state-hospital admissions are reserved for adults who are seriously mentally ill and have been deemed a danger to themselves or others.
“NAMI is always reluctant to jump in with some sort of comment when these kinds of incidents occur because there’s so much that we don’t know,” Cagan said, referring to the shootings. “But, still, blaming the individual only goes so far. At some point, we have to look at the overall well-being of our mental health system.”
Budget cuts in the mental health system
Kansas’ system, he said, hasn’t fared well in recent years.
“I don’t like saying this,” Cagan said, “but we’re just lucky this didn’t happen in Kansas.”