Lawmakers reach compromise on third-grade reading bill

The bill has been pending with the panel since March after the House and Senate passed different versions.

LANSING, MICH. - Lawmakers have reached a compromise on the controversial, long-stalled bill designed to make sure all children in Michigan can read by the end of third grade.

The latest version of the legislation passed out of a conference committee late today and could be taken up by both chambers as soon as Wednesday. Along with a handful of other changes, it eliminates a provision that would have allowed a student to advance to fourth-grade, even if he or she were not reading at a third-grade level, if his or her principal and reading teacher agreed to advance the student.

Currently in Michigan, it's up to school districts to make individual decisions about whether to hold back third-graders for lack of reading skills. Some states have turned to strict reading laws in an effort to boost proficiency.

“This legislation was all about improving educational outcomes for our children,” Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Township, chair of the House Committee on Education, said in a news release following the vote. “We needed to strengthen the emphasis on reading in every classroom.

"Both the majority of the House and Senate believed in this legislation before today, but we all felt — considering how important it is for the educational future of our state — we needed to come to consensus on it.”

State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, was the lone dissenter in this afternoon's 5-1 vote. He unsuccessfully proposed three amendments.

Zemke said the change that removes the "good cause exemption" involving the principal and reading teacher leaves the burden on a student's parents to make a request for an exemption. That could put a child whose parents aren't as engaged as others at a disadvantage, he said, and disproportionately impact students in poverty.

The bill allows parents to appeal to a district's superintendent for an exemption. There is also an exemption for a student who is new to a school and hasn't yet had time to catch up.

Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, said the compromise legislation also includes:

  • The restoration of a provision that says specialized services will be provided to English language learners.
  • The notification of a student's parents if he or she is not proficient in reading per the state reading assessment. 
  • A provision for a "smart promotion" that says a student who is not proficient in reading, but is proficient in math, science and social studies, can advance to fourth grade.

Sen. Geoff Hansen, R-Hart, a member of the conference committee, praised Price and Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, for working to reach a resolution.

"This is something we really needed to work on and get done," he said.

The state House in October passed HB 4822, a bill that makes it mandatory for third-graders who are more than a grade level behind in reading to be held back. Since then, lawmakers have wrestled with ironing out differences over who decides whether the struggling students should be held back.

The Senate version of the bill, passed in March on a bipartisan basis and with wide support among educators, was less punitive, allowing parents to request an exemption to allow their child to go to fourth grade even if he or she fails the reading exam.

The Senate version also required schools to have intensive intervention programs to help students who are struggling with reading. Both the Senate and House versions had various exemptions, including for students who receive special education services.

House members balked at the Senate version, sending it to a conference committee.

According to results released late last month, 47.3% of Michigan students in grades 3-8 passed the English language arts portion of the new Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.

Experts say reading proficiency in the third grade is crucial for a student's academic success. Research shows that students who struggle with  reading at that age are more likely to continue struggling with school.

After today's decision, Michigan League for Public Policy President and CEO Gilda Z. Jacobs issued a statement in support.

“We maintain our concerns with mandatory retention, but while this bill may not be perfect, that is the nature of compromise," she said. "We are pleased with the number of exemptions, including the ability of a parent to make the request. The bill contains many other positive provisions, such as early and ongoing interventions to help students struggling, and is ultimately a strong step in addressing this issue.”

Detroit Free Press


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