After passing legislation between 2014 and 2017 mandating education standards for public school students with dyslexia, the state legislature revisited the issue in 2021 to pass a further bill requiring the Department of Education to enforce those standards.
Unlike other legislative mandates, lawmakers in this case also appropriated $480,000 to create an Office of Dyslexia and Reading Disabilities with oversight of the department’s handling of dyslexia.
The money became available on July 1, 2021, the start of the fiscal year, and the intention, according to State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a strong proponent of the bill, was for five new employees to be hired and to fulfill the requirements of the legislation by July 1, 2022.
Six months later the Department of Education has posted a hiring notice for a bureau chief to lead the office , the first of the four positions envisioned under the legislation, leading legislators and advocates to voice concerns that the department has not followed the law as it was intended.
The first problem, according to Osten, is a six-month delay in posting the job.
“This job posting being off does not lead toward improvement for those with dyslexia across the state,” said Osten in a phone call with CT Examiner.
The second problem, according to Osten, is that the job description for the position is not what was intended by the legislature.
“It was supposed to be a stand alone office reporting to the commissioner, but originally they had an organizational chart with the new office reporting to the talent office,” Osten said.
This confusion concerning where the new office head fell in the Department of Education’s organizational chart, combined with a lack of human resources staff in the department, and a misunderstanding regarding the source of funding for new office staff, led to months of delays and messages back and forth detailed in emails between legislators and departmental staff.
“There is much work that has to happen behind the scenes before a Department can create a new office and post positions on the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) Jobs Portal,” said Eric Scoville, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. “Within the timeline of rolling out this new office, we went above and beyond our requirements and granted legislators opportunities to meet one-on-one with CSDE staff to provide feedback and comprehensively discuss the structure and mission of this new office.”
In mid-September, a bipartisan group of legislators, including Osten, State Reps. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, Irene Haines, R-East Haddam, Michelle Cook, D-Torrington and Terrie Wood, R-Norwalk, met with the Department of Education to address the concerns and delays. After that meeting Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker assured legislators in a Sept.15 email that her department would act in accordance with the legislation.
“Please be assured that the Office is being developed in accordance with the Public Act. The office will be under the management of a chief as required in the Public Act,” pledged Russell-Tucker. “I am committed to efficient organizational design to ensure that we not only meet our requirements but exceed expectations with an essential focus on improving the outcomes for all our students.”
But three months later, the department’s job posting on Dec. 29 for bureau chief was met with a storm of complaints from advocates on the issue.
According to Allison Quirion, an advocate with Decoding Dyslexia who served on the state task force to develop the recommendations for office, the department’s job posting lacked specific qualifications related to dyslexia and structured literacy, as well as the explicit mission and requirements of the office that the new chief would lead.
Quirion, who has submitted a number of freedom of information requests since 2016 asking the department to document its implementation of the legislation, raised the issue again in a Jan. 17 letter to the editor.
Senate Republicans also sent a letter to the department calling into question the job posting.
“The job posting does nothing to alleviate the CSDE’s self-reported lack of internal expertise related to dyslexia and structured literacy and will actually damage the potential of the new office,” eight Senate Republicans warned in the letter.
In response to this criticism, department officials took down the original job announcement, and on Jan. 15 reposted the job search with three additional preferred qualifications.
In a statement to CT Examiner, the department defended its approach to the hiring process – “these bullets clearly state that experience in dyslexia, structured literacy and higher education are needed.”
According to department officials, concerns over the job posting stem from confusion and misinformation.
There is a lot of “confusion about routine state hiring practices and misinformation being spread about the posting for the Office of Dyslexia and Reading Disabilities Bureau Chief, which is intentionally misrepresenting intentions of the Department, and quite frankly, calling into question our ability to effectively implement the law,” according to a statement provided by the Department.
But that explanation has failed to satisfy legislators and advocates who spoke with CT Examiner.
“They reposted it and it still doesn’t meet the intent of the job,” Osten said. “It is not specific … it is saying things like could be, should be … we were really trying to have a model piece of legislation relative to dyslexia, with this job posting it doesn’t seem to fit that now. It seems like a bland piece of legislation.”
A lack of expertise
The new Office of Dyslexia and Reading Disabilities, created by Public Act 21-168, granted funding to the Department of Education to hire individuals with expertise in dyslexia, reading disabilities and higher education after department officials had indicated that a lack of expertise in these areas was one reason the prior legislation had not been implemented.
“However well-intentioned, the department cannot support all elements of this section with current staff capacity and budget constraints,” Russell-Tucker explained to legislators in written testimony in March 2021. “The Department does not have the capacity to audit each individual Educator Preparation Program (EPP) provider, nor the depth of internal expertise, to audit individual course syllabi to the level of specificity required by the bill.”
But in contrast to that testimony, under Russell-Tucker’s leadership the department began checking off tasks detailed in the legislation prior to hiring new staff with specific expertise in dyslexia.
According to a department presentation in September 2021, a project manager for the Center for Literacy and Science of Reading has been designated, weekly project planning meetings have been held, a contractor was engaged to assist in research, evaluation and implementation, the review process for reading assessments was started and online professional learning that aligned with the Foundations of Reading Survey was distributed.
“Commissioner Russell-Tucker testified they didn’t have expertise so why are they parsing out the work of the new office before it’s created instead of letting the bureau chief do that once hired, and in line with the legislation,” asked Quirion.
According to Scoville, the work outlined in the presentation was necessary as the department works toward making the hires for the new office.
“The Dyslexia legislation was highlighted in this update with preliminary first steps. The Talent Office asked EPPs to identify faculty members that would be willing to serve as advisory/stakeholders for pieces of this work,” explained Scoville. “This was pre-emptive to have names identified for when the Office was up and running.”
The most common disability nationally
Dyslexia is currently the most commonly diagnosed learning disability in the United States. But without specific diagnostic tests, dyslexia — a cluster of symptoms that result in people having difficulties with specific language skills, particularly reading – is still often not diagnosed in a timely manner, leading to illiteracy well beyond elementary school.
“People that have dyslexia people are thought to be stupid,” said Osten.
Expanded diagnostics in elementary schools and training teachers in structured literacy, said Osten, will improve student outcomes and help to break the school to prison pipeline..
“When I worked in corrections, many of the younger inmate population often were found to have autism or dyslexia and it hadn’t been diagnosed,” Osten said.