School calendar, literacy rollback bills stir debate in State House

School calendar, literacy rollback bills stir debate in State House

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama senator wants to undo a major provision of the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act with legislation eliminating the mandate that students not reading on grade level must repeat the third grade.

In the House, another bill to require longer summer breaks has some powerful co-sponsors. Both bills were filed last week and are now awaiting committee action, but they are already stirring debate in the State House.

Proposed Literacy Act change

In Senate Bill 269, Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, wants to remove the provision in the Alabama Literacy Act that says any third grader who isn’t proficient in reading must be held back from advancing to the fourth grade.

Whatley says he thinks the decision to hold back a student should be left up to individual teachers, parents or principals and not a statewide mandate.

“I don’t think you need to make an arbitrary line in the sand point in the third grade,” Whatley told ADN. “I think you need to have local decision and let the teachers make those decisions on a local level instead of a mandatory holdback.”

Whatley said he’s heard some feedback from teachers, parents and school administrators about the holdback provision, but that he’s had this concern since he voted to pass the Alabama Literacy Act last year.

“This was something that I promised to do last year and I wanted to see if we can address it this year,” Whatley said.

The Alabama Literacy Act passed in 2019 requires schools to identify struggling readers and provides multiple layers of support and assistance to get them to a third-grade reading level. If they aren’t reading on grade level before the fourth grade, the students are held back.

Mark Dixon, president of the A+ Education Partnership, which advocated for the literacy law, said the third grade line isn’t arbitrary.

“A student who can’t read on grade level by third grade is four times less likely to graduate high school. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate than his or her wealthier peers  However, 96% of third graders who are reading on grade level will go on to graduate from high school,” Dixon said. His statistics came from an American Educational Research Association study on student literacy.

The law’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, made clear she does not support Whatley’s bill and says third graders are evaluated in a comprehensive way.

“It’s not based on one test, its based on a portfolio of the student’s work and how they can be successful in their learning goals,” Collins said. “There is not just one way to be successful.”

Students can provide test-based student portfolio options and an alternative reading assessment to demonstrate sufficient reading skills.

The law also has “good cause” exemptions that allow students to move on without reaching the grade-level benchmarks, including students who have already been held back twice, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Those students who are held back would also receive intensive specialized training and attend summer reading camps.

Collins said she has heard concerns from some superintendents who were worried about funding the extra training and summer camps but the Alabama Department of Education has taken those costs into consideration in its 2021 budget proposal.

State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey told lawmakers earlier this year that the state would need an extra $18.5 million in education funding just to implement the summer reading programs. He asked for nearly $50 million in total to implement other Alabama Literacy Act requirements.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was the senate sponsor for the Alabama Literacy Act. It’s modeled after a Mississippi law and Orr said improvements have been seen in that state.

“If [The Mississippi Department of Education] had one item that they would point too, to which they attribute their success, it is the hold back legislation,” Orr said.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia require retention for students not reading proficiently by the end of the third grade, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight states allow for retention but do not require it.

Whatley also said that just because a child may not be reading proficiently by the third grade, that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed academically for the rest of their life.

“I know a few legislators, myself being one, who was not reading on a third-grade level,” Whatley said. “…Since then I think I’ve been pretty successful.”

But Collins thinks the holdback provision is necessary.

“I think it creates that sense of urgency that we need to start teaching our children to read right now,” Collins said. “This is the time and it’s critical.”

School Calendar Change

A bill from Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, would allow local school boards to set their own school calendar as long as the start date is not earlier than the third Monday in August and the school year ends by May 31.

This would result in an 11-week long summer break.

Hurst says House Bill 411 is meant to help provide teenagers with work experience in developing trade skills during the summer and improve Alabama’s overall workforce.

“I want to help the school students have an opportunity to do something better in life when they know they aren’t going on to college and at the same time help workforce development to continue to prosper in Alabama,” Hurst said.

The bill has multiple members of legislative leadership listed as co-sponsors, including the Education House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa.

Poole wouldn’t say he supports the idea of having a longer summer break but does want to talk about it.

“I am supporting the objective of having a methodical, reasoned discussion and review of all issues related to school start dates, the fact that schools are starting earlier and earlier each year, and the policy issues that are involved,” Poole told ADN.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, is another co-sponsor of the bill and supports it because it is a “simple, commonsense measure.”

“It brings some much-needed uniformity to school calendars across the state while also providing local systems with complete flexibility to set schedules within the parameters of the bill,” McCutcheon said.

“The legislation also allows students to seek summer employment and obtain valuable training and skills that will serve our workforce well in future years.”

The Alabama Association of School Boards has come out against the bill saying that it takes away too much local authority from school boards.

“Preserving school-based flexibility to design school calendars is essential to accommodate student learning needs, local education goals and each community’s unique preferences,” the association said on its website.

Hurst says they will still have control and his bill just deals with the start and end date.

“The board can set it up however they want to,” Hurst said. “All the bill says is that it has to be from May 31 to the third Monday in August.”

Schools are required to have at least 180 full instructional days or the hourly equivalent of no less than 1,080 instructional hours, according to the Alabama Department of Education.

Hurst said his bill wouldn’t affect private schools or homeschooling requirements.

Rep. AJ McCampbell, D-Demopolis, is another co-sponsor on the bill and says he is interested to see if a change in the school calendar will help with standardized test scores.

“I would like to look and see if this will increase better outcomes to those tests as a result of this bill,” McCampbell said. “I want to see if there is a change from taking tests before Christmas break rather than after.”

Hurst also said if not more is done to improve Alabama’s workforce then the state could potentially miss out on taxpayer dollars going toward education.

“If businesses won’t expand or come to Alabama because they see our workforce isn’t there, then job growth goes down and that depletes our tax revenue, which then money for education starts going down,” Hurst said. “If we just sit here and don’t do anything to achieve more workforce out there, then Alabama is going to be in a crisis.”

Gov. Kay Ivey has a workforce development initiative with the goal of adding 500,000 new credentialed workers in Alabama by 2025. Hurst said he hopes his bill can contribute to that goal.

Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, is a member of the House Ways and Means Education committee and says he personally thinks school years start too early, but shares the concerns about giving up local control.

“I think the best method for making sure a school calendar fits the needs of a community is stakeholder input,” Kiel told ADN. “Parents, teachers and students should communicate with their local administrators. I do not think that I, as a legislator, should tell a school in Troy or Greenville what is appropriate for their kids in south Alabama. I don’t know their community, nor do they know mine.”

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, is a former educator and said she supports Hurst’s bill, but wants to make sure cities’ and counties’ special scheduling needs are taken into consideration.

“It’s an excellent idea to extend [summer break] but if you can work it out so that there won’t be any conflict with any county or city and come up with something comprehensive, that would be best,” Boyd said.

Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, is a member of the House Education Policy Committee and said he’s undecided on supporting the bill because of local control concerns.

“I feel like we have a very diverse state, with a lot of different school districts and they need to respond to their own community’s needs,” Rafferty said.