By DAVID BOYLE
After many years, the Alaska Legislature has passed the “Alaska Reads Act,” which should improve reading outcomes for Alaska children. The passage of HB 114 was a classic example of the art of politics — bringing different views together in a compromise in which neither side gets everything it wanted.
This bill started as SB 111, which then morphed into HB 114. Once HB 114 was passed in the Senate by 19-0, it was sent back to the House with Senate amendments included.
Senator Rogr Holland amended HB 114 by adding the entire verbiage of the original SB 111 (Alaska Reads Act) into it. I don’t remember that ever happening on the Senate Floor before.
The final legislation included:
- A breakout of the number of teachers holding administrative jobs and the number of total teachers.
- The Base Student Allocation is increased by $30, to $5,960 per student.
- Pre-K programs are authorized yet limited to $3 million annually. Lower performing districts get preference. Pre-K students are counted as one-half a full-time student in the funding formula.
- Implementation of a reading program to identify students with reading difficulties, using a statewide screening tool three times per year. The intent is to get students reading at or above grade level by 3rd grade. Parents are required to be notified if a K-3 student has a reading deficiency. Districts are required to work with parents to help students improve their reading skills. In consultation with school staff, a parent/guardian has the final say regarding a student progressing to the next grade.
- A report on the districts’ progress to implement reading intervention programs.
- Districts are required to report on the number of K-3 students who did not progress to the next grade and the number of 3rd grade students who went to 4th grade. This information is to be posted on the Department of Education & Early Development website.
- Pre-K teachers must be trained in the science of reading and reading essentials as approved by the board.
- The Department is required to develop a reading program to support the lowest 25% of schools.
- The Department is authorized six reading specialists to help those low performing districts improve.
Here is the progress of the legislation as it went through the bill process:
SB 111 was heard and passed in Senate Education and Judiciary Committees and then went to the floor where it passed by a vote of 15-0.
Support for the bill came from parents and educators throughout the State.
Superintendent Deena Bishop of the Anchorage School District supported SB 111 and stated, “I am here today to testify that SB 111 counts. It empowers our schools and teachers to ensure students are readers and thinkers in today’s global society—while at the same time providing accountability for the dollars spent on public education in Alaska.”.
Education Commissioner Michael Johnson emphasized that the Department’s #1 priority was, “To support all students to read at grade level by the end of third grade” as expressed in “Alaska’s Education Challenge.”
There was very little opposition to SB 111. Senators from both sides of the aisle supported the bill. It seems as if the only opposition was from the “Bush caucus,” which had a difficult time voicing its specific problems with the bill.
SB 111 then was sent to the House where its first hearing was in the Education Committee, co-chaired by Reps. Harriet Drummond (D, ANC) and Andi Story (D, JNU). In the past, Drummond has only championed education legislation that increased funding but with little accountability for results.
During the committee hearing, co-chairs Drummond and Story sent a memo to the Senate Education Committee stating they wanted the following changes to the bill:
- Move more quickly to expand access to universal Pre-K by increasing funding from $3M to $5M annually.
- Increase student funding in the BSA (by $223 year one and an additional $155 for the following year).
- Add a return to the Defined Benefit retirement plan for teachers.
- Remove from the bill the retention of students for not progressing in reading adequately
- Include a new “Division of Cultural Education” in the Department of Education & Early Development.
But the Drummond/Story version of SB 111 did not pass out of the Education Committee, so it was virtually dead.
So, the original SB 111 died in the House.
Next, the Senate took up HB 114, Alaska Supplemental Education Loans, for discussion on the floor. That is when Senator Holland amended HB 114 by adding the entire verbiage of the original SB 111 (Alaska Reads Act) into it. This amended bill then passed the Senate by a vote of 19-0 and was sent to the House for a vote.
On the second to last day of the legislative session, House Majority Leader Chris Tuck moved and asked that the House concur in the Senate amendment and vote yes on Senate amended HB 114.
The final vote in the House was 21-19 in favor of HB 114. The vote was not along party lines and except for Rep. Patkotak, the Bush caucus voted no.
There are many who deserve kudos for this great effort to improve the literacy of Alaska students: Sens. Holland and Tom Begich, for shepherding the bill through the Senate. Sen. Begich defended the bill in the House Education Committee as well. Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes was also instrumental in coalescing support for the bill. House Majority Leader Tuck ensured the bill got a fair shake in the House. Reps. Mike Prax, Mike Cronk and Ron Gillham (House Ed Committee) informed their caucus on the bill’s merits.
Education Commissioner Johnson, who has supported efforts to improve reading skills for all Alaskan children and who strongly supported this Alaska Reads Act, also deserves credit.
And finally, Bob Griffin, Senior Education Research Fellow for the Alaska Policy Forum, was tireless in his efforts to provide the data and research to support this legislation.
In the next few years, we need to ensure that the specifics of this bill are implemented, and student reading progress is well documented.
While not perfect, the bill is a major step in the right direction.
David Boye is former executive director of Alaska Policy Forum and is Must Read Alaska’s education writer.