By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
Toward the end of her 2019 State of the State address, Gov. Kay Ivey urged lawmakers to resist looking at issues through a narrow, short-term lens and instead see how the decisions they make affect the state for years and decades to come.
Playing on the bicentennial theme of that year, she specifically mentioned the thorny issues of prisons, infrastructure and education.
“Members, I remind you that our story in Alabama will go long past the time you and I are in office. When we make improvements to our state’s infrastructure, to our prisons, and to our education system, we are planting a seed of opportunity for Alabama’s next 200 years,” Ivey said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am a governor looking beyond the next four, the next eight or even 10 years. I am a governor leading our state into the next century.”
To her credit, Ivey followed up her rhetoric with results. She called lawmakers into special session the next day and pushed through an infrastructure and gas tax plan that had proven impassable just two years earlier. A few months later she announced an ambitious plan to build and lease three new men’s prisons to replace our current dilapidated ones. And that session, with her support, the Legislature passed the Alabama Literacy Act, perhaps the most important measure to improve education in Alabama in the last ten years.
To be sure, there were and still are those who disagree with Ivey’s decisions on all three issues, but no one can deny that she took decisive action. Now, that kind of leadership is again needed from Ivey as she considers what to do with legislation weakening that literacy law.
In one of its last acts of this recently ended session, the Legislature passed a bill to delay by two years the key accountability component to the Alabama Literacy Act. Senate Bill 94 from Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, delays from spring 2022 to spring 2024 the requirement that third-grade students not proficient in reading must repeat the grade. Smitherman and others argue that since students missed significant amounts of school during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state shouldn’t enforce the retention provisions of the law yet. It would unfairly “punish” kids to hold them back in third grade if they can’t read, proponents said, because classroom instruction was interrupted over the last year.
I say the true punishment would be passing those children along, as we’ve done for decades, and setting them on a course for serious struggles and disappointment down the road. That was, after all, the point of the Alabama Literacy Act.
It established and funded regional literacy specialists to the lowest-performing 5% schools in the state and provided summer reading camps to all K-3 students identified with a reading deficiency. It ensured stronger preparation for teachers on reading instruction while they are still in college. It set up an early identification system to make sure those with dyslexia and special needs receive the needed support. In other words, it fought against what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and the abandonment of our most disadvantaged children to a system unwilling to measure what was needed to lift them up and give them a shot.
The timing of the law was not coincidental. That year, Alabama students’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card, dropped to 49th in the nation for reading. That’s almost dead last after we had scored at the national average in 2011. It was a profound embarrassment and a wake up call for a state that had lost its focus.
Convincing data shows that students who do not learn to read by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school. That statistic jumps to 13 times less likely to graduate for poor students who don’t learn to read by third grade. And even the ones who do graduate stand to be less prepared for work and life as adults. That affects people’s quality of life across communities and makes our state’s workforce less competitive.
The tools the state is now implementing – reading coaches, early intervention, teacher preparation, parental communication – are badly needed but incomplete without a strong accountability component. That’s why the holdback provision is critical.
It’s true that students have experienced varying levels of learning loss over the course of the pandemic and it’s understandable that some would want to delay the law’s impact accordingly. But, when offered a compromise amendment to reduce the delay from two years to one, lawmakers roundly rejected it. If this was truly about accounting for school closures, why insist on two years of delay when most schools were reopened last fall?
The delay bill was pushed hard by the School Superintendents of Alabama and the Alabama Education Association. Their efforts were effective, in part, because lawmakers who don’t specialize in education policy tend to lean on the advice of local education leaders. While they should always listen to local officials, it’s important to remember the proper roles here. It’s the Legislature’s job to set policy for schools; it’s not school leaders’ job to dictate policy to the Legislature. That’s especially true when it comes to accountability laws like this one. Whenever a child does get held back, it’s going to be the teachers and superintendents that get the first earful from parents. That’s a tough gig and I wouldn’t want it, but it’s not hard to recognize the natural disincentive towards accountability such a situation produces.
Lawmakers acted hastily in passing this delay bill. We are still a year and another legislative session away from the holdback provision taking effect. The prudent course would have been to wait to see data on exactly how our students were impacted by COVID-related learning loss before taking action.
Which is why we now need Gov. Ivey to step in and do the prudent thing by vetoing Senate Bill 94.
I know the governor is a strong supporter of the Alabama Literacy Act and the efforts it is producing. “Pre to Three” is a major plank in her “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education platform and I’ve heard her speak of the importance of improving literacy. I think that’s because, as her 2019 speech showed, she tends to take the long view on policy and politics. I hope she does that here.
Vetoing Senate Bill 94 would send a clear message that this state still believes in accountability and prioritizes student success over political convenience. I have at times been awed by Ivey’s political courage in seemingly precarious situations, particularly throughout the pandemic. Here’s hoping “the boss” has more where that came from.