Education Committee approves literacy bill

Hickenlooper testifies in favor of HB 1238
The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper testified on Monday in favor of bipartisan House Bill 1238 which would improve literacy in early elementary school grades, drawing upon his own troubled experiences as a dyslexic student who was forced to repeat the seventh grade. The legislation is sponsored by Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

The governor said improving early literacy is one of the most important things the state can do to position itself for strong educational and ultimately economic growth.

The House Education Committee sent the bill to the appropriations committee on a 10-3 vote, despite concerns over retaining low-performing students and costs associated with the bill that are considered by many school districts to be an unfunded mandate. But its supporters are heavily lobbying the legislation, including the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Succeeds, Colorado Concern, Stand for Children and the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Kicking off seven hours of marathon debate and echoing comments in support of the bill by education advocates and the business community, Hickenlooper spoke of the importance of preparing children to read by the third grade. He said that had interventions been in place when he was a student, perhaps he would have been able to identify his learning disability at a younger age to cut back on his “disruptive” behavior and better prepare him for the world ahead.

“I think back to how far behind that put me and I think that’s part of the reason I had a hard time through high school, even after I stayed back,” Hickenlooper said during rare witness testimony by a governor. “What we’re hoping with this plan… is to focus on how important early literacy is.”

The 44-page HB 1238 would bring some of the most comprehensive early literacy reforms to the state in recent memory. The most controversial provision of the bill would allow the state Board of Education to define “significant reading deficiency” for purposes of retaining third-graders with the weakest reading skills. The original version of the bill, which was in the works more than a year ago, would have required mandatory retention of deficient readers. But widespread opposition caused Massey, who normally chairs the Education Committee, to reconsider the mandatory retention component.

Instead, the current version of the bill would require parents, teachers and administrators to hold private meetings and conversations to determine whether the third-grade student should be held back. In situations where the stakeholders decide that a student should not be held back, the district superintendent would decide the fate of the student.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, offered an amendment that would have eliminated the retention provision in the bill, but her motion failed on an 8-5 vote. Solano, a retired teacher, voted against HB 1238 along with Reps. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, and Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. They are also retired teachers.

“After hearing all of the testimony into the night about retention, I have never felt comfortable with that language being in there in the first place…” said Solano. “It still really concerns me… I’m just really surprised that we’re still talking about that strategy as an effective strategy.”

Massey, however, says the bill is not about retention, but rather about offering educators and parents tools to address the problem of students falling through the cracks.

“We really feel like we’ve softened the retention piece to be so permissive that it engages in a dialogue that focuses on early childhood,” Massey told Solano. “We really hope that with the right supports in place and the right… interventions and the right assessments that this becomes just a tool that is available… we hope we don’t retain any kids.”

Still, parents brought their children to the hearing to oppose the retention provision. Some mothers are concerned that the discussions of deficiency could traumatize young children. They had the support of the Colorado Education Association, which spoke to those concerns.

“Sitting in a meeting with these students and their families, telling them that they’re more likely to graduate from high school and obtain a postsecondary credential if they reach reading proficiency has the potential of doing great damage,” testified Adele Bravo, a literacy specialist for the Boulder Valley School District and a member of the Colorado Education Association. “It is a risk we cannot afford. This message could result in lowered self-esteem and a lack of confidence… a sense of hopelessness.”

Another major concern raised at Monday’s hearing was the concept of an unfunded mandate placed on school boards. The legislation is expected to cost the state $5.4 million in its first year of implementation, with money coming from tobacco settlement dollars and the existing Read-To-Achieve program. Still, additional revenue will likely be needed, and sponsors are still working to find a source.

Matt Cook, president-elect of the Colorado Association of School Boards and the director of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education, pointed out that school budgets are consistently slashed by the Legislature. Last year, K-12 saw a cut of $227.5 million. Cook said his district was forced to slash funding by $50 million over the last four years.

“Our public schools are continually asked to do more with less…” he said. “If we are to have a truly thorough and universal form of education, we believe that funding must be included in the conversation.”

But Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, took a different approach, arguing that school districts are complaining that more money is needed simply to perform the rudimentary tasks that they are expected and required to perform.

“I guess I’m getting a little uncomfortable with all the questions about money,” she said. “Why should it take more money to teach them the very basic thing, the one thing they should be getting in school?”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com