Shelley Hughes

Shelley Hughes

Legislators in Juneau are working their way through a new Senate bill that would fund early education and provide assistance for children in reading. The bill also provides new state guidelines for third graders who don’t meet proficiency standards in reading, with the option of delaying “promotion” to fourth grade.

School districts now establish those policies internally. SB 111 would set state guidelines that could turn into requirements.

Alaska children score the lowest in the nation in reading despite $1.2 billion in state funds spent yearly to support K-12 schools. However, the state is missing a critical ingredient in strategies used successfully in other states to raise reading proficiency in grades 1 through 3. Those include statewide pre-kindergarten programs combined with a heavy focus on reading once children enter first grade.

Several Alaska school districts do offer “pre-K” and there is also federally funded Head Start for Alaska Native children, with many programs actually operated by nonprofits. However, a major concern is the uneven quality of early learning efforts,” said Sen. Roger Holland, R-Anch., chair of the Senate Education Committee. Holland’s remarks came Monday during the committee’s review of Senate Bill 111.

The bill combines sections of SB 8 and SB 42, bills by Sens. Tom Begich, D-Anch, and Shelley Hughes, R-MatSu that were offered earlier along with proposals on reading from Gov. Mike Dunleavy last year.

The new SB 111 would provide grants for early learning for low-income school districts that currently don’t have programs combined with a change in the state education foundation formula, which guides state funding for schools, that would allow all school districts to include children in pre-K programs in their calculation of the state funding formula, thereby getting additional state aid to support the programs.

However, the bill also sets state quality standards for the first time in early learning. It would give the state Department of Education and Early Development, or DEED, authority to ensure the quality all pre-K programs being offered through public schools as well as setting new standards for qualifications of teachers in early reading.

SB 111 is complicated, however, with 47 sections. Senators on the education committee have been working their way section-by-section through the bill beginning last Friday and continuing Monday, and with plans to complete the review Wednesday, March 31.

Senators on the committee are airing several concerns during the discussion and Holland said amendments are already being discussed that will be in a committee substitute, or a new version. The bill has a long way to go, he said, and substantial changes can be expected.

Two areas of contention have appeared. One is over language in several sections of the bill that “sunsets,” or terminates, the programs and the funding at different intervals several years out, depending on performance. A second point of disagreement is on language setting standards for withholding promotion of third graders to fourth grade if reading proficiency has not been reached.

There was lively discussion last Friday and Monday on the “sunset” provisions, although no final decisions are made, and the debate over third grade promotion began Monday and will continue Wednesday. Holland also said he expects substantial public discussion in hearings that will be held later.

Begich is the critic on the committee on the program and funding terminations. Having those in SB 111 sends a signal to school boards and administrators that the Legislatures isn’t really serious about long-term support for early education. No other state with the programs has such provisions.

Hughes and Holland pushed back, however. Hughes said the terminations are similar to other “sunset” provisions in current law, and they will offer a reasonable opportunity for the Legislature to review how well the programs work after a few years. Holland said that since these also provide changes in the foundation program for all schools, the built-in review created by terminations seem reasonable.

Begich countered that most existing state “sunsets” are for bodies like boards and commissions but not whole programs. “When we added the ‘k’ (of K-12) to the foundation program we didn’t add a sunset,” Begich said, referring to the addition of funding for kindergarten to the funding formula a few years ago.

It also signals that the Legislature still considers early learning to be experimental. It isn’t experimental, Begich said. “We now have ten years of experience that it works to improve learning in third grade and by eighth grade, based on results in Nome (public schools), LKSD (Lower Kuskokwim School District) and the Mat-Su and Anchorage schools,” Begich said. “Why do we still consider this ‘experimental’?”

Holland replied: “This (bill) is just a plan. Its success depends on implementation in the field. A sunset gives us a chance to see how it was implemented,” by causing the Legislature to review the program.

Hughes said she would support an amendment the bill requiring a formal analysis of performance in advance of the sunset dates. The bill already requires reports to the Legislature.

Sen. Peter Micciche, a member of the education committee who is also Senate President, said he supports a review because there are many legislators hesitant to vote for an expansion of early childhood learning in perpetuity, given the state’s fiscal constraints. “But I can see it likely that a majority of legislators will vote to support it if they know there will be a review,” he said.

Micciche also said that having several terminations in different parts of SB 111 occurring in different years is confusing. He asked Holland if the committee staff could develop a graphic showing what programs and funding will terminate when. Holland said that can be done.

The committee began digging into sections of the bill later In the Monday meeting relating to promotion, or lack of it, from third grade for children failing to reach reading milestones. This is the second contentious issue in SB 111. That debate will continue at the Wednesday meeting of the committee.

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