Alaska Senate unanimously passes comprehensive reading, pre-K bill

The Alaska Senate unanimously passed the Alaska Reads Act, but it faces an uncertain future in the House.
Published: Apr. 12, 2022 at 7:31 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Senate unanimously passed a comprehensive reading and pre-kindergarten bill on Tuesday, but it faces an uncertain future in the House of Representatives.

The bill, estimated to cost roughly $128 million over the next decade, would work toward implementing universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten across Alaska, over several years. Existing programs could be improved, and school districts could compete for grants to establish new ones.

There would be a new “read by 9″ program, adapted from Florida and Mississippi initiatives, that tries to ensure all students can read before they leave the third grade. If students can’t read sufficiently by then, their parents would be asked not to promote them or that they undergo 20 hours of intensive reading education.

The 40-page bill, known as the Alaska Reads Act, also contains provisions to hire six reading specialists to instruct teachers across Alaska’s 53 school districts. It would also establish a virtual education consortium to establish online learning programs for students and teachers.

All the programs and the provisions in the bill would sunset after 10 years, unless they are extended by the Legislature.

Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, has helped carry the Alaska Reads Act for over two years after unveiling an earlier version with Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2020. He urged for it to pass on Tuesday.

“We are able to potentially change the game in education today,” he said on the Senate floor.

Begich tried to clear up what he called “misinformation” about the Alaska Reads Act. He said the pre-K programs would be voluntary for districts and there would be no “high-stakes” testing for kids. He said it’s about establishing a proven “philosophy” to improve reading outcomes.

“It does things we must do if we’re going to start changing the curve on how we educate our kids,” Begich said.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, has been another key figure in writing and advancing the bill. She has called it a “game-changer” and believes it to be “landmark legislation” in improving reading outcomes. But, she expressed disappointment that the rules on promotion to the fourth grade are not tougher.

Alaska has long scored down the bottom of states for reading assessment scores. In 2019, fewer than 40% of Alaska students were making the grade in English Language Arts.

Last week, the House passed an operating budget with a $57-million increase to the student funding formula and a plan to forward fund K-12 education a year ahead of time. But that planned increase could be vetoed if it makes it onto Dunleavy’s desk.

“Governor Dunleavy has consistently said, in his veto messages on additional education funding in past years, that until a reading bill with accountability passes, he will be unsupportive of new increases in funding,” said Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, on Tuesday.

The House has its own reading bill, which has not moved from the House Education Committee. Current plans would see it spend more on reading intervention initiatives, but there isn’t an updated cost estimate for that bill.

There has been some skepticism in the House about the Senate bill, particularly on whether it will be beneficial for rural Alaska and whether there has been enough funding set aside to achieve its goals.

Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins of Fairbanks, a member of the House Education Committee, raised those concerns on Tuesday.

“Our schools need those supports,” he said about the House plans to increase school funding. “We can’t just throw a whole new policy program at them without the supports and the funding, otherwise we’re just going to be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Rep. Andi Story, D-Juneau, is a co-chair of the House Education Committee. She echoed some of Hopkins’ concerns and said a reading bill could “complement” the school funding increase approved by the House.

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