Bill to greatly expand early literacy education unanimously passes Senate committee

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Senate Education Committee Virtual MeetingA bill to greatly expand early literacy education and codify the status of the Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) unanimously passed the Kentucky Senate Standing Committee on Education during its Feb. 11 meeting.

Senate Bill 115, sponsored by Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris; and Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, builds on the existing Read To Achieve (RTA) program. While successful, that program does not have enough personnel to serve students statewide – especially not in low-performing schools, West said.

The RTA program, created in 2005 to help struggling readers in kindergarten through 3rd grade, offers competitive Reading Diagnostic and Intervention grants that provide a reading intervention teacher who offers short-term intensive instruction and participates in professional development activities.

The RTA program reaches about 10,000 students, but the goal of Senate Bill 115 is to provide early literacy help to 200,000 students, West said. The proposal is based on a Mississippi plan that has shown excellent results since 2015, he said.

Ninety-two of Kentucky’s lowest-performing schools can’t access the grant to hire an RTA specialist teacher, he said. The grants provide $48,000, but the school must provide any additional money needed, and many districts can’t afford that, West said.

The bill would allocate $3 million over two years to fund early literacy programs statewide, he said. The new program would incorporate RTA personnel and move RTA funding into a new coaching model.

“We don’t want to do away with the idea of RTA. We want to expand the RTA,” West said.

Tipton said the target is to ensure students are reading at grade level by 4th grade, the grade where students stop learning to read and must begin reading to learn. A person’s reading proficiency correlates with graduation and incarceration rates, he said.

State reading test scores have been stagnant for several years, so a change is needed to improve that performance, Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass told the committee.

“Early literacy is a foundational element for education in our Commonwealth,” he said.

The new program would include regular communication with parents of children in kindergarten through 3rd grade, provide home resources for them, offer statewide professional learning for reading teachers and add reading coaches, Glass said.

Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said reading problems should be addressed even earlier, and urged legislators to allocate more money to early childhood education.

“As I’ve said many times, the achievement gap starts on the first day of kindergarten,” he said.

West said he agreed, but across-the-board early childhood education would cost many millions. This expansion of early literacy education offers the best return on investment for now, he said.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 168, sponsored by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, who chairs the education committee.

The bill codifies two previous executive orders on the relationship between EPSB and the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), said Chuck Truesdell, KDE director of government relations.

The EPSB is recognized as separate from the Kentucky Board of Education, he said. Staff from KDE serve the board and handle its daily operations.

The new structure works well, and SB 168 would ratify retaining it, Truesdell said.

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