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Wisconsin reading education overhauled under bill signed by Gov. Tony Evers

WI State Journal: Mitchell Schmidt | Published on 7/20/2023

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The state will spend $50 million to create a new literacy office, hire reading coaches and help cover the cost of new phonics-based reading curricula under a GOP-authored bill signed into law by Gov. Tony Evers on Wednesday.

The Democratic governor said the bill, which aims to address lagging reading scores among Wisconsin students by increasing the number of reading-readiness assessments for students in 4K through second grade, is “a step in the right direction.” He added that additional K-12 spending on matters ranging from mental health services to school lunches remains a top priority.

“So, if we want to improve outcomes for kids in our classrooms across the board, this bill is only one small part of the work we have to do — we must continue making meaningful investments in our kids and our schools, bolster our education workforce to help keep class sizes small, and expand access to mental health services and healthy meals in our schools so our kids can bring their full and best selves to our classrooms,” Evers said in a statement.

The bill originally would have held back students who score poorly on their third-grade reading assessment — an idea that drew strong opposition from the state Department of Public Instruction and Evers, who threatened to veto the measure.

Ultimately, bill author Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, amended the measure to only require those students to take part in summer instruction or repeat third-grade reading courses while in fourth grade.

“This bipartisan plan could not have been accomplished without the countless hours put in by staff to craft a well thought out product as well as the input from DPI and other stakeholders,” bill co-author Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, said in a statement. “The Right to Read Act will transform the way we teach reading in Wisconsin, helping better prepare our students for college and career readiness while setting them up (for) lifelong success.”

The bill creates a Council on Early Literacy Curricula within DPI that would be charged with recommending early literacy curricula and instructional materials to be used in schools. The council would consist of nine members, with three selected by the state superintendent of public instruction and three chosen by each of the leaders of the GOP-controlled Assembly and Senate.

That curricula would focus on the “science of reading,” a method for teaching children to read that is more focused on phonics, which is based on the relationships between sounds and words. Many Wisconsin schools teach reading through a “balanced literacy” method, which puts less emphasis on phonics.

The Legislature approved setting aside the $50 million as part of a sweeping education funding bill that passed both chambers earlier this month.

Lawmakers said $10 million would be spent to hire 64 full-time literacy coaches who have expertise “in science-based early literacy instruction and instructional practices and have instructional experience in grades kindergarten to 12,” according to an analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau.
The coaches would be assigned to school districts based on pupil scores and requests for early literacy support.

The remaining $40 million would go to school districts as grants to cover teacher training expenses and half the cost of new curricula.

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 67.4% of Wisconsin fourth-graders and 67.6% of eighth-grade students were not proficient in reading.

Last year’s levels were the worst recorded in the state since 1998, Wisconsin Watch reported in April.

Despite the low scores, Wisconsin eighth-graders were 3 percentage points higher than the national average, while fourth-graders were close to the national average.

The state’s Wisconsin Forward exam found similar results, with about 67% of eighth-graders and 58% of fourth-graders failing to score proficient or advanced in English language arts.