Shelley Hughes

Shelley Hughes

A bill that would expand early learning in Alaska schools with a focus on reading is advancing in the state Senate.

The Senate Education Committee passed out Senate Bill 111 April 16, sending it on to the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill would provide new support for school districts in providing pre-kindergarten education for children as early as four years old. Several school districts already provide “pre-K” and there are also nonprofits that operate early learning including Head Start, which is federally funded for disadvantaged children.

SB 111 would provide limited funding for school districts to offer pre-K with a priority given to the lowest-ranking districts in reading scores, which are typically in economically depressed rural areas. Children there can gain real benefits from access to learning before kindergarten as well as a focus on reading instruction through third grade that SB 111 would bring.

The legislation also enacts fundamental changes in the way the state provides financial support for schools, setting precedents. One is that the state Department of Education and Early Development must approve programs and certify that they teach to standards for quality. SB 111 requires this for programs supported by state funds, and this is the first time it would be done.

A second change is that the legislation “sunsets,” or terminates, in 2034 if statewide benefits can’t be shown in performance in improved reading and other skills.

Prior to the sunset, however, SB 111 requires the education department to make periodic reports to parents on children’s’ progress as well as to the Legislature on overall performance of the program. Before the 2034 sunset the department will prepare a performance evaluation. An indirect benefit of the reporting requirements, and the eventually sunset review, is that educators will have an incentive to ensure performance.

Legislators, including Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Mat-Su, a member of the education committee, have expressed concern about the apparent lack of accountability in schools and poor performance of students. Alaska children rank near the bottom among states in reading ability despite more than a billion dollars a year of state aid going to schools, Hughes said.

School officials have no problem with this: “We are not fearful of accountability and believe it is appropriate for our communities, families and students, and the accountability provisions (in SB 111) are reasonable,” Norm Wooten, advocacy director for the Alaska Association of School Boards, told the education committee.

The bill goes further in accountability, however. Specific standards in reading instruction are set and programs receiving state funds are required to meet them to gain approval by the state to qualify for said. Wooten, at the school board association, applauded this: “We especially appreciate defining the elements of an evidence-based reading education – phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency, oral language skills, and reading comprehension,” he said in a written statement for the committee.

“The ability to read well is the fundamental basis for good education, and SB 111 emphasizes this,” Wooten said,

Another requirement in the bill for state certification is that teachers in pre-K and early learning will be required to have taken courses and to have experience. This is the first time the Legislature has imposed quality standards as a condition to state aid to schools.

The Senate committee also came to agreement on several thorny issues although one member of the committee, Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anch., still opposes the sunset of the program in SB 111, arguing that school districts might not make the investments needed in teacher recruiting and training if the state seems unwilling to make a permanent commitment to pre-K, which the sunset provision signals. Other states that have made major investments in pre-K and seen results, like Mississippi and Florida, made their programs permanent after failing to get results with temporary programs.

Consensus was reached on another hot-button issue in the bill, however. It is on “retention” (the term “progression” is now substituted in the bill) of third-grade children, preventing them from advancing to fourth grade, if grade-level reading skills cannot be reached.

Earlier versions of SB 111 had rigid requirements on this but in the end the committee opted to give school districts flexibility on policies to hold back children, in consultation with parents, and to assess mastery of third grade skills through combinations of testing and a portfolio of work. The committee trended away from one “high stakes” test but still wanted some form of objective evaluation, as in tests, in addition to a subjective evaluation of progress, such as through student portfolios.

Another issue the committee faced was whether state aid for school districts to start new pre-school programs could affect existing federally supported Head Start or private nonprofit pre-schools. If new in-school programs take too many children from Head Start, for example, federal funding could be lost. The same could happen with an early learning center operated by a private company, profit of nonprofit.

The committee’s consensus was that if a local Head Start or private pre-school, meets the DEED standards those will be recognized by the DEED as qualified programs and state funding for a competing school district program would not be provided. “Our goal should be to support a standard of quality, not a particular program,” Begich said in the committee meeting.

The effect of this will be to create incentives for Head Starts and private nonprofit pre-schools to improve their quality, committee members argued. “I’m frankly dissatisfied with the quality guidelines for Head Starts,” Begich said. These are governed by local boards under federal rules.

Hughes said being required to meet a state standard will give some assurance to parents with children in pre-school. “Parents now have no way of knowing how good the instruction is,” she said.

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