Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Third grade reading bill defeated; 'innovation districts' bill moves forward

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

The Kansas Senate Education Committee on Tuesday narrowly defeated one of Gov. Sam Brownback's major education policy initiatives: a bill to require third-grade students be held back if they are not reading at grade level.

On an unrecorded 5-6 vote, the committee rejected S.B. 169, the "Kansas Reads to Succeed Initiative," which Brownback touted during his State of the State address in January.

That was the speech in which Brownback made the dubious assertion that "29 percent of Kansas fourth-graders can’t read at a basic level."

That figure was based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP exams, which are not given to all students and which are not aligned with Kansas reading standards. Data from the state's reading assessments, which are given to virtually all students, show only 11.3 percent of fourth-grade students scored below standards in 2012.

With a few exceptions, the bill would have required schools to hold students back in the third grade if they scored in the bottom performance level on the state's third-grade reading assessment.

The bill also would have provided $12 million over two years from the Children's Initiative Fund (tobacco settlement money) to pay for reading intervention programs in earlier grades.

Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker expressed concern about the bill when she briefed the State Board of Education about it earlier this month.

Chief among her concerns was that it circumvented the state board, which has the constitutional authority for "general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state."

The bill would have put the Kansas Children's Cabinet in charge of distributing the money in the form of competitive grants to nonprofit organizations, school districts or a combination of the two. Priority, though, would have been given to applicants who could put up a 30 percent match from nonstate and nonfederal funds.

The committee debate focused on many of the typical arguments heard over third-grade retention laws, which have been enacted in a handful of other states: Supporters say schools do more harm than good by promoting students who can't read at grade level; opponents argued that it would be unreasonable to put so much emphasis on an 8-year-old's score on a single standardized test, and that doing so might well increase that child's chances of dropping out of school in the future.

The surprise, though, came from Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, who turned out to be the swing vote on the panel.

Kerschen won his seat in 2012 after defeating incumbent Sen. Dick Kelsey of Goddard in the August GOP primary. Kerschen had been endorsed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and, thus, was thought to be a close ally of Brownback.

But Kerschen said, among other things, that he objected to taking parents out of the equation when making decisions about a child's future.

Innovative Districts Act clears committee

The Senate panel did endorse another bill Tuesday that would give a limited number of districts authority to dispense with many laws and regulations governing schools by applying to be designated as a "public innovative district."

S.B. 176 was spearheaded by committee chairman Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, who said it would be a kind of pilot project in response to claims by some administrators that they are hamstrung by cumbersome regulations.

The bill would allow up to 10 districts at a time to be designated as innovation districts. Those districts would still be subject to federal laws requiring special education and handicapped accessibility, as well as general public health and safety laws. They would also have to comply with state accreditation requirements, and they would get the same funding as other schools under the state school finance formula.

But they would be exempt from a host of other laws and regulations, notably laws requiring collective bargaining with teachers.

The committee advanced the bill on an unrecorded voice vote. It now goes to the full Senate.