Cost of Reading Mandate Could Top $100 Million in 2024-5

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To the Editor:

Connecticut taxpayers will see their school budgets balloon thanks to a new, unfunded mandate from Connecticut State Department of Education that will force most of the state’s school districts to adopt unsupported, expensive reading programs in a bid to raise literacy rates. Worse, CSDE has given several of Connecticut’s grossly unperforming districts a pass on their existing reading programs, perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy that has plagued Connecticut’s poorest communities for generations.

At issue is the “Right to Read” law, enacted with the June 2021 biennium budget bill. Many teachers, superintendents, and citizens see the law as an unwarranted overreach by Hartford because it usurps local school districts’ authority to craft reading curriculums that meet the needs of children enrolled in their schools. Right to Read has ceded to CSDE full oversight of all early literacy instruction.

Two regulatory bodies – the Reading Leadership Implementation Council and the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success — built the framework for the law and identified seven kindergarten through Grade 3 reading curriculums. Districts are required to select from this list and implement their new reading programs by the 2024-25 school year. They may request a waiver.

In an end-run around the implementation council, CSDE hired Boston-based consultants, Public Consulting Group, to work with the Literacy Center’s director. Together, they independently expanded the list of approved programs without input from the council. CSDE has offered no data to demonstrate the efficacy of these programs or justification for their selection.

Third grade is a critical year in reading instruction since fourth graders are expected to apply the reading skills developed in their prior three years of schooling. Studies show that students not reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely than their reading peers to not graduate from high school by age 19. These children have higher truancy and drop-out rates and are at greater risk for poverty as adults.

In 2022-23, nearly 20,000 Connecticut third graders could not read at grade level as measured by the Smarter Balance Assessment (SBA), a math and reading skills test given annually to students in grades 1 through 8. More than half of these lagging students attend schools in one of 36 Alliance Districts, the state’s poorest performing schools. About 5,000 of these students have learning disabilities. Of the 7,200 students in non-Alliance District schools, 2,700 are learning disabled.

In a January 6, 2022, webinar on Right to Read, state Education Commissioner Charlene Russell Tucker noted the bill’s goal is for every third grader in the state – regardless learning ability – to read at or above grade level.

Local school districts have developed their curriculums using a variety of texts, materials, and instructional strategies. The most successful reading programs, as measured by the SBA, do not use any of SDE’s prescribed options. Nevertheless, the department is ordering districts to scrap their programs to adopt those selected by CSDE.

Right to Read may have given CSDE curriculum oversight, but it stuck local districts – and taxpayers – with the tab. Connecticut’s public schools already struggle with a vast array of unfunded mandates, which, when coupled with other fixed costs, consume up to 95 percent of district budgets. The financial impact of the department’s order will be grim.

In a January 2022 letter to CSDE, Fran Rabinowitz, the president of Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the new mandate will cost districts collectively more than $100 million in the school year 2024-25. Cheshire Public Schools, for example, estimates that replacing its highly effective PreK-3 curriculum will cost $536,292 for licenses, texts, and supporting materials. The estimate does not include the cost of training. Wilton Public Schools puts the price tag at upwards of $1 million.

As fiscally onerous as the mandate will be, its impact on students and the repercussions on their achievement could prove disastrous since it allows some of the state’s worst performing schools to keep their programs intact, while forcing successful districts to abandon theirs.

Earlier this year, the department initiated an opaque waiver process. Schools were given applications, but no guidance on how applications would be evaluated. Of the 85 districts requesting waivers, 17 were approved. Only one – Marlborough — met the benchmark for reading proficiency.

Of the remaining 16 that missed their benchmarks, Hartford Public Schools saw only 47.6 percent of its third graders students reading at or above grade level in 2022-23. New London School District, saw only 49.1 percent of third graders achieving reading proficiently in 2022-23; 50.7 percent of Waterbury’s third graders read at grade level. Within these districts, several schools saw as few as 20 percent of their third graders reading at or above grade level.

CSDE ordered the remaining 68 applicants to either augment their existing programs or replace them entirely. These districts include New Canaan Public Schools, where 83.2 percent of their students read proficiently. Darien, Westport Eastford, Wilton, Colebrook, Cheshire, Ridgefield, Bethany were also denied in part or all together, even though their third graders scored near or above the 80 percent level.
One objective of the Right to Read legislation was to “address systemic racial injustice by closing the literacy opportunity gap.” CSDE seems intent on closing the “literacy opportunity gap” by dismantling successful programs instead of demanding that underperforming schools do right by their students and fix theirs.

Connecticut has long prided itself on local schools’ ability to teach to the child. This ill-conceived and poorly executed law abandons that ideal in favor a one-size-fits all mandate. Lawmakers must restore curriculum authority to local boards of education. It can then order CSDE to harness the expertise of our most successful teachers and reading specialists – the real literacy experts – and bring their know-how to the students who will truly benefit from it.

Faith Ham is a former member of the Cheshire Board of Education where she chaired the curriculum committee. Kim Healy of Wilton is a member of the Reading Leadership Implementation Council.