Hickenlooper signs literacy bill into law

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DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper Thursday signed into law his signature education initiative of the just-finished legislative session, a sweeping overhaul of how struggling readers are taught in Colorado schools.

The new law, dubbed the “Colorado READ Act”, will put a new emphasis on early childhood literacy by requiring statewide reading assessments as early as kindergarten; and it will require schools to identify children that are significantly behind in reading skills.

“This is where economic recovery begins,” said Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We’re truly investing in our kids.”

The most controversial element of the law concerns retention — a mandate to hold back third grade students who aren’t reading at grade level, who won’t be allowed to go on to fourth grade without permission of a school superintendent.

“This is legislation that really does put our kids first,” Hickenlooper said Thursday. “It talks about how do we get to that point where we recognize and accept that we’re not succeeding at making sure that every kid, when they finish third grade, that they are proficient at reading.

“Reading proficiency is the simple, most powerful foundation that we have for all future success.”

The bill, which got a high-profile roll-out at a press conference attended by the Rockies’ mascot, Dinger, was a priority for Hickenlooper, who testified on the measure at its first House hearing, revealing that he’d struggled with dyslexia as a child.

Despite some opposition from a handful of Democrats, most of them former teachers, who were concerned that the bill was an unfunded mandate on districts and overly punitive toward struggling kids, the bill sailed through the House with bipartisan support and sponsors, Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Millie Hamner, D-Dillon.

With strong support from the business and education reform communities, House Bill 1238 seemed like a slam dunk to cruise straight to the governor’s desk.

But it ran into a stone wall when it moved to the Senate, where Senate President Brandon Shaffer, concerned that the bill was similar to ALEC-crafted retention laws in other states, sent the measure to his “kill committee.”

The bill stalled for weeks as the sponsor, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, made numerous changes to the bill that Shaffer had demanded.

Still unsatisfied, Shaffer continued to pressure the three Democrats who make up the majority on the State Veterans & Military Affairs Committee to consider killing the bill.

But, at a meeting a few days before that panel was set to hear the bill, Johnston and Christine Scanlan, Hickenlooper’s chief legislative lobbyist, were able to negotiate some final changes — most importantly, some funding for districts to intervene with struggling readers once they’re identified — that were enough to secure the support of the two key Democrats, Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder and Bob Bacon of Fort Collins.

After clearing that committee on a 4-1 vote, the bill won unanimous approval on the Senate floor.

“At its heart, the READ Act is about making sure every parent has the information she needs, that every child has the interventions they need and that every teacher has the supports that she needs to make sure that every struggling reader has the tools they need to enter the fourth grade ready to read,” Johnston said Thursday.