Literacy bill back on track in Senate

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DENVER — A controversial bill that would encourage schools to hold back third graders who aren’t reading at grade level survived the Senate’s so-called “kill committee”, which approved it 4-1 Wednesday afternoon, sending the measure on to the full Senate.

House Bill 1238, the cornerstone of Gov. Hickenlooper’s education agenda this year, has been re-worked in meetings over the past week to satisfy two Democrats who sit on the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

The key amendment that was adopted Wednesday afternoon will provide additional funding for schools to intervene with struggling readers once they’re identified, cutting into the argument by some opponents that the bill was an “unfunded mandate” for Colorado schools.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who pushed an unsuccessful statewide ballot initiative last year that asked voters to approve a tax hike to generate more funding for schools, negotiated the changes in meetings with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and members of the governor’s staff.

“It was a great process,” Heath told FOX31 Denver Wednesday morning. “It’s how the process is supposed to work.”

The legislation, which was rolled out with great fanfare by Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, sailed through the GOP-controlled House, despite strong opposition from some educators who argued that the bill would punish vulnerable students and didn’t provide schools the financial resources necessary to really help them.

H.B. 1238 would leave retention decisions in the hands of schools and focus on earlier intervention by teachers when a child is struggling to read; the prospect of holding that student back a year, the bill’s sponsors believe, could serve as an added incentive for parents to spend more time reading to and working with their children.

Business leaders, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other education reform advocates all have endorsed the proposal.

But it’s fate has been less certain in the Senate, where President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, assigned the bill to a committee known for killing bills before they get to the Senate floor, not the Senate Education Committee, where most assumed the bill would be heard.

For weeks now, Johnston has been in meetings with Shaffer and other stakeholders, namely the education reformers who support the bill and the educators who have concerns, as well as Heath and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, the two swing votes on the committee, trying to iron out the kinks.

“I’m pretty pleased with where we’re at,” Johnston told FOX31 Denver Wednesday morning. “The original bill is mostly intact.”

While education reform groups aren’t wild about the late changes, their bill has, at least, seemingly avoided an unexpected death and will — once it clears committee and is approved by the full senate — be signed into law by Hickenlooper, who has testified in support of just one bill since taking office last year.

This one.