A bipartisan effort has pushed forward a $120 million grant program aimed at transforming literacy instruction from birth through the primary grades.
The ambitious effort has brought together a wide array of stakeholders, including school board members, district administrators, teachers, parents and reading reform advocates. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek helped write the bill, and the House Committee on Education approved it this week.
But it’s facing questions about whether it’s ambitious enough.
House Bill 3198 is an effort from Kotek and legislators to address Oregon’s lagging reading achievement levels and its lax standards around reading curriculum and teacher preparation. The improvement push has accelerated in recent months amid parent advocacy at the local and state levels to mandate instructional strategies aligned with the “science of reading.”
HB 3198, called the “Early Literacy Success Initiative” has three main parts: a grant program to support school districts as they improve reading instruction, a birth-through-five literacy fund and a grant program for community-based organizations. The idea is to take a holistic approach to literacy and a young person’s world, starting when they’re babies interacting with parents and caregivers, through their school experiences in the primary grades and into their lives outside of school.
HB 3198 passed 7-0 and moved to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.
Before voting in favor of the bill, Rep. Gerald “Boomer” Wright, R-Coos Bay, questioned the spending level of $120 million over the upcoming two years.
“I think sometimes we require schools to do too much with too little. And I want to make sure that we support this program,” Wright said. “I’d like to see the $120 million moved at least $240 million. So we make sure that we get to the schools what we need and particularly for our kids.”
Wright, and lead sponsor of the bill, Jason Kropf, D-Bend, were among several people at this week’s hearing calling the effort to overhaul reading in Oregon a “daunting” task.
“But I think it’s one that we can’t shy away from,” said Kropf.
While Wright pressed for more money, his committee colleague Rep. Emily McIntyre, R-Klamath Falls, pressed the governor’s office for a clearer set of priorities, in case funding fell short.
“Our crisis sits at K-through-three immediately in front of me, in my brain,” McIntyre said to Pooja Bhatt, Kotek’s education initiatives director who addressed the committee Monday. “It’d be great to partner with prenatal to five. But right now in K-12, we have the students in kindergarten through third grade. And I’m curious if, depending on the amount of money that we’re able to get, if there’s conversations about how that money can be prioritized.”
McIntyre suggested if only $10 million or $20 million were available, if it would make sense to prioritize funding the public school grant program, and not spend on the early learning and community programs. Bhatt was steadfast that funding should go to all three areas.
“If we’re serious as a state about really making movement on changing systems to better serve children, all children, we really need to take a comprehensive approach and really think about what happens in schools has to be reinforced at home and in the community and sometimes parents need support to do that,” Bhatt said.
McIntyre sounded unconvinced, saying that she didn’t want to see a big financial investment wasted by a lack of clear priorities. For her part, the Klamath Falls Republican, who is also a sitting school board member, emphasized professional development for teachers.
Bhatt responded that there were convincing arguments for multiple priorities in HB 3198, including not just professional development, but having research-aligned teaching materials and assessments, “high dosage tutoring” and summer learning opportunities. She said different school districts were at different stages in improving reading instruction — suggesting the priorities McIntyre is looking for should be set at the local level with the help of a framework under development at the Oregon Department of Education.
Testimony was largely supportive of the bill, with the main concerns being that it may not push schools hard enough to make changes, doesn’t provide enough funding or it lacks adequate safeguards to ensure schools make substantial enough changes.
Kali Thorne Ladd, the executive director of the Children’s Institute, applauded the bill and underscored its importance with so many Oregon children unable to read.
“I would say that literacy is the gateway that makes all other learning possible,” Thorne Ladd told legislators. “That is why this is more than a conversation about phonics and coaches and science and tutors. It’s a battle for the future of Oregon.”
West Linn parent Becca Puskas asked lawmakers if literacy is a civil right, as some supporters have said about efforts to overhaul reading, then why are changes being encouraged through a grant program, rather than mandated outright.
“Where else in the law do we leave the protection of a civil right to a grant program?” asked Puskas, who is a lawyer and state regulator, as well as a parent.
Puskas was among many who latched onto a phrase legislators and the governor’s office have used repeatedly: that HB 3198 is a “first step” toward solving a complicated problem.
One key piece of Kotek’s reading initiative isn’t appearing in this legislation at all. Advocates of overhauling Oregon’s approach to reading have repeatedly said that the state’s colleges of education need to change how they prepare reading teachers. Bhatt told the House education committee that Kotek is working on an executive order to form a work group to address teacher preparation “to reset instructional strategies at our teaching universities that will reflect decades of research and science behind reading and writing.”