With three days remaining in this legislative session, a wide-ranging K-12 public education bill has cleared the Missouri Senate. It is sponsored by state Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina.
One of the main provisions would require the Missouri Board of Education to team up with the Coordinating Board of Higher Education and a newly-formed Commissioner’s Literacy Advisory Council. They would work to develop a plan to make a reading instruction system.
Under the bill, the state Board of Education would create an Office of Literacy and take other actions intended to improve literacy. Additionally, a fund would be created to support the “Evidence-Based Reading Instruction Program”.
“Since I have been in the Senate, so this will be the fourth year, we have continuing reports of children who have reading difficulty. So, they either have a reading deficiency or they may have a dyslexia problem,” said O’Laughlin. “Whatever the problem is, they are not able to read at grade level. And what we find happening in some cases, not all cases, is the school, depending on what kind of reading curriculum and efforts they’re making, sometimes will say, ‘Well, your student will catch up.’ But the student never catches up. Looking at data that has been gathered from across the state, we find that we have poor reading outcomes.”
Through teamwork with several Missouri Senate Education Committee members, O’Laughlin said the bill would mandate certain curriculums and interventions used at schools.
“The first step is an assessment of reading capability. Some schools have their own testing for that, but we are also telling DESE, ‘You can choose from one of these tests, but we want to have accurate data. Then if we find that your program is working fine, but if it is not working, we want you to use evidence-based curriculum. We want you to employ tutoring. We want you to help these struggling readers get past the point of not being able to read.’ If you can’t read there’s not much else you can do,” she said.
State Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, helped to craft the plan.
“Like you, I’ve also heard concerns expressed on this floor that students, or maybe schools, aren’t focused on the right things,” said Arthur. “Schools aren’t doing enough to improve literacy scores. They’re not teaching the foundational, fundamental skills like math and literacy, and too much time and attention gets diverted to other sorts of things in the classroom, sometimes political things. So here we have legislation, or at least the underlying bill, that’s really targeted at improving literacy scores.”
She said the bill would make a real difference.
“We need it to because reading scores were unacceptable, and that’s before the pandemic. We know that there has been a learning loss and a reading slide over the last few years. So, we need to pass this legislation to ensure that our students can go on to be successful. If you don’t have that basic skill, you can’t do anything else. You can’t apply for a job. You can’t read to learn about other subject areas, you’re just so limited. So, it’s really important that we get this legislation across the finish line. It’s my hope that no one stands in the way of all of the good that is contained in this bill and that we’re able to do even more for students this year,” said Arthur.
Another provision would launch Dolly Parton’s “Imagination Library of Missouri Program” to encourage reading by children through age 5. Through the program, the country singer would partner with the state to provide books on a monthly basis at no cost to the children. The state would be required to designate at least $5 million annually to this effort’s fund.
Competency-based learning has been getting additional attention these days. The concept to this approach is that learning is best measured by students demonstrating a mastery of learning, rather than the number of hours spent in a classroom. Think about it like a child completing a level in a video game before moving to the next level. Regardless of how long it takes them, they move to the next round after they jump through a bunch of hoops in the game.
With this shift in competency-based learning, the legislation would create a program and fund to award grants to eligible school districts providing programs using this type of learning model. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would craft, share, and develop course testing, curriculum, training and guidance for teachers, and best practices for the school districts offering competency-based courses. A task force would also be formed to study and develop competency-based education programs in Missouri’s public schools.
Schools or school districts in the bottom 5% of scores on the annual performance report would be required to mail a letter to the parents and guardians of each student in the school or district. The parents and guardians would be informed of the score and any options available to their children as a result of the school’s or district’s current performance status. Special school districts and any state operated schools in which all of the students enrolled have disabilities are exempted.
During debate Tuesday on the plan, O’Laughlin talked about the requirement for school districts to notify parents and get written permission before using corporal punishment.
“Now, I don’t know any children that haven’t been, at least my kids, there’s probably kids that haven’t been spanked. We need to put discipline back into the classroom and we need to have it where teachers feel they have a control of the students that are in there,” said O’Laughlin.
State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, explained it like signing a permission slip to go on a field trip, but instead to spank the child.
Missouri is not currently an open enrollment state, but this bill would make an exception for people with multiple properties in different school districts.
“Basically if you own property in another district, and you have paid up to a certain amount of taxes in that district for so many years, you’re qualified to send your kids to that district,” said O’Laughlin.
The measure would allow any seven-director school district or an urban district to be divided into subdistricts, or a combination of subdistricts and at-large districts, and provides for the process for the election of subdistrict board members.
“Sometimes some of our school boards, everyone on the board is from one neighborhood. So maybe your entire community is not being represented well,” said O’Laughlin. “This gives you a process which you can go through with all the people within your district to make that more geographically equal – so more equal representation.”
Current law says when a sufficient number of children are determined to be gifted and their development requires programs or services beyond the level of those ordinarily provided in regular public school programs, school districts can make special programs for gifted children.
Under this bill, if 3% or more of students enrolled in a school district are identified as gifted, the district is required to establish a state-approved gifted program.
Other provisions include efforts to get lead out of school drinking water, suicide prevention training in schools, Holocaust education curriculum, among other things.
There was some pushback from state Sens. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, and Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove.
Eigel wanted provisions that would ban equity-based race history, an expansion of charter schools and restrictions on transgender athletes in school sports.
Moon asked O’Laughlin why the legislation does not include a restriction on transgender athletes in school sports.
“I said no I would rather you didn’t but here’s why – I think every big bill has to stand on its own. That is a big topic that needs to stand on its own,” said O’Laughlin.
O’Laughlin has also been hearing arguments that her bill takes away local control.
“That’s just not true,” said O’Laughlin. “Reading outcomes are not good and we are not using the curriculum that is appropriate to catch people up and to help people who have a reading deficiency or dyslexia. So we, being representatives of the people of our districts, are saying, ‘Listen, our outcomes are not where they should be and we are requiring you to use these particular methods. You can choose from a list but they have to be quality curriculum programs that can get people through reading issues.’”
The proposal heads to the Missouri House of Representatives, where lawmakers there could wrap up final passage of it before Friday’s last day of this legislative session.
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