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Ivey taking ‘hard look’ at Literacy Act delay bill

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey is being asked to veto a bill approved Monday to delay until 2024 a requirement that third grade students who can’t read proficiently must repeat the grade.

Legislation to delay by two years the holdback requirement for third graders under the 2019 Literacy Act was one of the significant bills passed by lawmakers on their final day of the session.

“It is accurate that we are hearing from concerned parties regarding the Literacy Act delay,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola told Alabama Daily News Tuesday. “The governor is certainly taking a hard look at this and is exploring all options. Education policy is important to the governor, and as we review, we will provide an update on where she leans on this decision.”

The Alabama Literacy Act, aimed at improving young students’ reading abilities, includes requirements for enhanced teacher training, student screenings and additional help for struggling readers, including summer programs. Lawmakers and Ivey have dedicated millions of dollars to the effort. Supporters of the act point to data showing that if students aren’t proficient in reading by the third grade, their chances of academic success later, including graduating high school, are greatly diminished.

“I would love for her to (veto it),” Rep. Terri Collins told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday. “In my opinion, it doesn’t support her Strong Start, Strong Finish initiative and I know she’s been a big supporter of the Literacy Act.”

Collins, R-Decatur, was one of the sponsors of the 2019 act. She said Tuesday she planned to contact Ivey’s office about the bill. She and others supported a compromise amendment that would have allowed for a one-year delay instead of two, but that measure was defeated on the House floor.

Democrats and many Republicans supported Senate Bill 94 from Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, to delay from Spring 2022 to Spring 2024 the  holdback requirement. They argue that COVID-19 pandemic has affected students’ education, forcing some out of the classroom, and to test them after next school year under the act would be unfair.

“It’s not fair to our children when they have not gotten schooling for 14 months and to be tested and expected to read on their level,” Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said Monday on the House floor. “Let’s give them a chance to catch up.”

The bill was approved 68-27 in the House Monday after clearing the Senate in April 23-9.

Smitherman on Tuesday told ADN he too planned to reach out to Ivey.

“The votes show that legislators are overwhelmingly concerned about this issue,” he said. “They’re concerned that students have not had the opportunity to be prepared. (And I’ll ask her) to give them that opportunity to get prepared so they’ll have the greatest opportunity possible for that test when it’s time.”

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, voted for Smitherman’s bill and said Tuesday he is still very supportive of the Literacy Act and its goals.

“But the coronavirus happens and you have to take into consideration how are we going to evaluate and manage these kids in the third grade when they’ve not been able to be in school, some of them literally for an entire year? So that presents a lot of challenges,” Reed said. “I think delaying the Literacy Act was a wise decision. I didn’t think it needed to be delayed for an extended time, but just enough to allow educators to look at what they needed to do and allow children to kind of get back in a mode where they can get the maximum benefits.”

Education groups were divided on the bill. The Alabama Education Association, which lobbies for education workers, and the Superintendents Association of Alabama supported delaying the Literacy Act and celebrated Smitherman’s bill’s passage, while the A Plus Education Partnership warned that a two year delay would be problematic for the law’s accountability goals. The Alabama Association of School Boards this spring said it supported reassessing the Literacy Act after students have taken some assessments that give a sense of where they are and the degree of learning loss. It said a one-year delay should be considered and any long-term decisions needed to be based on data.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored the Literacy Act bill in the Senate. He said because the coronavirus forced young students out of their classrooms, the act is even more important.

“If any time seems critical to make sure these children, who through no fault of their own were adversely affected by COVID, get everything they need to learn, now would be it,” Orr said Tuesday. “(Senate Bill 94) goes in the opposite direction.”

Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, opposed SB94 saying he doesn’t want to signal to educators or parents any “pullback” in the effort to improve literacy. He also argued that the delay bill isn’t needed because Ivey could through executive order delay the holdback requirement of the Literacy Act later, if it’s proven students aren’t ready.

Student testing data from this spring will tell education leaders soon how much the pandemic has impacted students’ education, Baker and others argued. Any decisions about delaying the holdback requirement should wait.

“I feel like we need to be aggressive in these efforts all the way up until the point that a decision has to be made,” Baker said Tuesday.

Late last year, Ivey used her executive authority to extend two economic development statutes and stop the Department of Revenue from collecting taxes on federal CARES Act funds – two actions that many thought would require legislative approval.

According to information from the Alabama Department of Education, an assessment earlier this year of a sampling of students showed 22% of them would need “intensive intervention” in reading.

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