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Ivey vetoes bill to delay third-grade literacy holdback

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey has vetoed a bill that would delay until 2024 a requirement that third-grade students who are not reading proficiently repeat the grade.

Today is the last day Ivey has to approve bills passed during this year’s legislative session. Without her signature, legislation dies.

Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, would have delayed the holdback provision in the Alabama Literacy Act from Spring 2022 to Spring 2024.

Democrats and many Republicans supported the bill arguing that the 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.

The bill was approved 68-27 in the House on the last day of the session after clearing the Senate in April, 23-9. Smitherman said this bill had bipartisan support from 91 lawmakers and noted Thursday that more House Republicans voted for it than against it.

Since its passage, Ivey’s office has heard from opponents and proponents of the bill.

Ivey addressed the pandemic learning loss in a statement announcing her veto Thursday. 

“Everyone agrees that the past 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been hard on all Alabamians, including school personnel, students and parents. However, to establish any delay at all in the Alabama Literacy Act prior to analyzing the 2020-2021 summative assessment data for reading would be hasty and premature. Therefore, I have notified the sponsors of the promotion policy delay that I have vetoed SB 94,” Ivey said. 

“Furthermore, as president of the Alabama State Board of Education, I am requesting that the state superintendent of education and his staff provide the board, and the public, a full and complete review of the Spring 2021 Assessment results in all subjects and grades, but in particular the data on reading in the early grades as soon as the data are available and have been analyzed. Once that is completed, I will ask the Alabama Committee on Grade Level Reading to review the relevant data and make recommendations regarding any necessary action. All the aforementioned work can take place this year, well ahead of any deadlines identified in the Alabama Literacy Act.”

Smitherman told Alabama Daily News he’ll be back with another bill either in a special session later this year or the January regular session.

He said Ivey asking the department of education to collect information on’ 2021 test data won’t tell leaders any new information about students struggling academically because of access issues caused by COVID-19 precautions. He said some students in his district have been learning from home all year with little support.

“We don’t need to go through any studies to know that those conditions exist, and we don’t need to go through any studies to know that the teachers are crying out saying that they have not had an opportunity to prepare because of the Covid situation,” he said.

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.

Those against Smitherman’s bill said that more data is needed before they consider delaying the holdback provision and that this would further delay progress being made to improve literacy rates in Alabama.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, told ADN on Thursday that she was pleased to see that the holdback provision would not be delayed and thinks the continued work through the Literacy Act needs to continue on schedule. 

“We need to at this point in time, for the sake of the children and to make sure that we are reading, push forward together on every single piece of the Literacy Act and that includes that sense of urgency that comes from that hold back piece,” Collins said. 

Collins, one of the main sponsors for the Literacy Act, said she looks forward to seeing what the data says about how Alabama students are doing after the 2020-2021 school year and that she is open to continued discussions on possible delays for the retention piece. 

Rep. Barbra Drummond, D-Mobile, sponsored the bill in the House and told ADN on Thursday that she was not happy to see Ivey veto the bill saying holding back students will be a disservice to them. 

“These students are going to be held back for something that was through no fault of their own, and it’s going to send a bad message, not only to the kids but to educators that leadership is not listening to the people who are on the front lines,” Drummond said. 

Smitherman said he was motivated by parents, teachers and the superintendents at Birmingham City and Jefferson County school systems.

“It’s very disappointing, but we’re going to keep pushing,” he said. 

This story will be updated. 

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