Student literacy bill winning bipartisan support among Missouri lawmakers

Approved by the Senate last month, the legislation is expected to clear a House committee this week

By: - April 19, 2022 12:16 pm
Missouri Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina.

Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said improving literacy rates for students is especially needed in light of the pandemic's impacts on learning (photo courtesy of Senate Communications).

What started as a bipartisan effort to improve Missouri’s literacy rates through a children’s book has evolved into legislation that lawmakers hope will boost students’ reading success.

A bill heard Tuesday in the House Education Committee would require schools to start assessing students on their reading levels in kindergarten and ensure students who are behind receive additional support.

Sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, the legislation was borne out of a spirit of collaboration that the chair of the Senate Education Committee has helped foster since last year.

From a working group to find consensus on education issues to women senators’ working together to publish a book on the 36 women who have ever served in the chamber, O’Laughlin said having open conversations has helped lawmakers see that they share many of the same concerns.

“There’s a lot of common ground if you look for it,” O’Laughlin said. “So I think it’s a model that we need to use on everything. Otherwise, you just get tied up and get nothing done.”

The bill passed out of the Senate unanimously last month, and also includes Sen. Lauren Arthur’s legislation that would allow schools to be granted “innovation waivers” that would allow them to be exempt from certain state regulations as they work to reach a goal, like improving students’ readiness for employment or increasing teacher compensation.

When the bill was granted initial approval in the Senate last month, Arthur, D-Kansas City, said O’Laughlin’s desire to ensure students can read was “contagious” and became a shared priority for senators, particularly the women of the Senate.

“Hopefully, we’re putting something in place that will last long after we’re gone,” Arthur said during Senate debate.

O’Laughlin has filed legislation on reading comprehension for the last several years, and said it’s especially needed in light of the pandemic, which “really exacerbated” declining reading comprehension rates.

Test scores released last year by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education showed that for the 2020-21 school year, only 45% of students were proficient or advanced in English language arts.

It was the first time state assessments had been administered since the 2018-19 school year, and it represented a four-point drop in that subject. State education officials had cautioned against making comparisons to previous years’ scores due to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

The bill would have students be tested on their reading comprehension starting in kindergarten — rather than third grade.

“Obviously, if you can’t read it’s going to be very hard to learn anything else,” said Stacey Preis who testified in support of the bill on behalf of Aligned, later adding: “So this will let teachers have more opportunities to catch these things early on.”

Also speaking in support of the bill Tuesday were the Missouri School Boards’ Association, Missouri State Teachers Association and Missouri National Education Association. No one testified in opposition.

Otto Fajen, MNEA’s legislative director, said he believes the bill “will have more lasting impact” than previous ones, in part, because it has “the whole picture.”

“The timing right now could hardly be better to make some investments,” Fajen said, “because you not only want to make changes in terms of the process for making sure our new teachers have everything they need to meet the needs of all their students in terms of reading, but also resources for the active teachers who maybe didn’t get that in their teaching programs.”

The bill would direct the State Board of Education to establish a statewide literacy plan that supports evidence-based reading strategies, establish an Office of Literacy and provide professional development opportunities and training in reading instruction for teachers.

An “Evidence-based Reading Instruction Program Fund” would also be established to reimburse school districts and charter schools for their efforts to improve literacy rates, like tutoring programs after school or stipends for teachers to undergo training.

“It is my opinion that at this time when our state has more money than ever before,” O’Laughlin said, “it’s exactly the kind of thing that we should be spending it on.”

Matt Michelson, the Missouri State Teachers Association’s director of education policy, recommended a few changes to the bill, like pushing its start date from Jan. 1, 2023 to July 1, so it would not fall in the middle of the school year.

The bill is scheduled to be voted out of committee on Thursday. A similar House version of the bill was passed out of committee last month and awaits debate on the House floor.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.