In last-minute move, Legislature passes early reading overhaul

A comprehensive reading bill known as the Alaska Reads Act was passed in the final hours of the legislative session Wednesday, but its passing divided members of the House Majority Coalition.

As the deadline for the end of the Legislative session approaches lawmakers often combine bills into packages in order to get them passed. But this can bypass the legislative process which requires bills to be approved after a committee process in both bodies of the Legislature before being sent to the governor for signature.

One bill passed in such a way Wednesday evening was the Alaska Reads Act, a comprehensive reading bill championed by Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage and Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The act was initially introduced in 2020 in a joint news conference with Begich, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader, and Dunleavy, a Republican. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed that initial effort but the bill was revived in 2021 and reworked in the Senate Education Committee with Republican Sens. Roger Holland, Anchorage, and Shelley Hughes, Palmer.

Hughes had her own reading bill, which was eventually combined with the Reads Act to become the Academic Improvement and Modernization Act. Begich told the Empire in January the combined bill included provisions he didn’t like including a sunset clause for Pre-K programs and limiting the number of schools able to receive special funding, but that he was confident the bill would pass.

That bill did pass the Senate, and in a floor amendment was renamed the Alaska Reads Act. But the bill was voted down in the House Education Committee.

In February, Reps. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel; Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; Neal Foster, D-Nome; Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik; Chalyee Eesh Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska; La quen naay Liz Medicine Crow, president and CEO of the First Alaskans Institute and Waahlaal Giidaak Barbara Blake, a City and Borough of Juneau City Assembly member, wrote an opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News which called the Reads Act well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.

[Dunleavy: No need for special session]

“Our concern is that while the effort is laudable, the bill doesn’t take into consideration the great difficulty getting teachers out to rural schools, period, much less the bill’s daunting requirement to hire and retain reading specialists necessary to ensure all children are reading by the third grade,” the authors wrote.

Both Foster and Patkotak ended up voting for the final version of the bill, an amended version of House Bill 114, which left the House as a bill regarding education loans and came back from the Senate with three additional education bills added onto it, including the Alaska Reads Act.

The move created strong pushback on the floor of the House, with many lawmakers decrying the additional bills for having bypassed the House committee process if not the contents of the bill itself.

Edgmon said Wednesday the Alaska Reads Act was trying to achieve something noble, but the contents of the bill would hurt rural Alaska.

“It sidesteps the real issue, which is teacher recruitment and retention,” Edgmon said. “If you were to write a bill for big schools, I would write it just like this.”

Crucially, the bill provides funding for districts to fund pre-K programs and includes struggling districts to apply for increased funding. The program will increase the state’s spending on education — costing $3 million in the firs year and nearly $18 million in fiscal year 2028 — but lawmakers have defended the spending by saying the bill’s programs at specifically targeted at educational outcomes. The bill also included a $30 increase to the base student allocation — the amount of money per student schools receive — a number which some House members said was so small as to be meaningless.

A key provision of the bill is the use of reading screeners to help identify students that may be struggling with learning to read. Speaking alongside Gov. Mike Dunleavy at a news conference about the state’s budget on Thursday, May 19, Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson said the Reads Act was about prioritizing students and their ability to read.

“(The Alaska Reads Act) has three main parts,” Johnson said. “Voluntary pre-k to really provide a boost to those students that need it so they are on that pathway to become proficient by the end of third grade; reading interventions, for those students that aren’t on that pathway so they can get support, and the third part is recognizing that some of our lowest-performing districts are going to need a turbo boost and some extra resources and support.”

But critics say screeners are another form of standardized testing. The bill also contains provisions for holding students back a grade if they’ve failed to show proficiency.

“I also remain very skeptical at the notion that increased testing, be it in the form of reading screeners, is going to solve these underlying inequities and the root causes for the disparities in educational achievement,” said Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, a member of the House Education Committee.

Zulkosky also expressed concern about the retention language in the bill. The bill allows for students in the third grade to be held back if the student has a reading deficiency based on the statewide screeners. In that case, the teacher and relevant staff are required to meet with the student’s parent or guardian to discuss the issue. But if a parent or guardian misses that meeting the bill says “the superintendent or the superintendent’s designee” shall determine if the student progresses to the next grade.

“(The bill) inserts the state into decisions that should be made between students, parents and teachers,” Zulkosky said, “uses a screening tool leading to a high-stakes decision point on one area of subject matter of a student’s progress.”

Voting in favor of HB 144 were Reps. Mike Cronk, R-Tok; Neal Foster, D-Nome; Ronald Gillham, R-Soldotna; DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer; James Kaufman, R-Anchorage; Bart LeBon, R-Fairbanks; Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake; Ken McCarty, R-Eagle River; Tom McKay, R-Anchorage; David Nelson, R-Anchorage; Josiah Patkotak, I-Utqiaġvik; Mike Prax, R-North Pole; Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; George Rauscher, R-Sutton; Laddie Shaw, R-Anchorage; Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak; Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks; Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla; Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage and Sarah Vance, R-Homer.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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