State Lawmakers Seek Fix for Districts on the Hook for ‘Right to Read,’ as Bill Sponsor Pushes Back at Critics

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Help may be on the way for Darien, New Canaan and the 66 other Connecticut school districts denied waivers under the state’s new Right to Read law.  

In response to low literacy rates among the state’s third-graders, Connecticut passed Right to Read legislation in 2021 which requires school districts to use a literacy curriculum predicated on the Science of Reading, a research-based approach to teaching children to read.

As part of the legislation, districts that could demonstrate the effectiveness of their current literacy program could apply for an exemption or waiver. 

Yet, many high-performing districts with enviable reading proficiency scores, like Darien and New Canaan, were denied full waivers and now face the prospect of being forced to buy new reading programs that could cost upwards of a million dollars per district.  Multiply that cost by 66 districts, and it adds up to a significant unfunded mandate by the state.

85 school districts that applied for a waiver, only 17 were fully approved, leaving superintendents and school boards across the state feeling frustrated and confused. 

“I think the intent of this legislation was great,” said Darien Board of Education’s Sara Parent. “I think the implementation of it has been less than stellar and it has put all of us in a little of a tricky spot.”

“We’re trying to get this fixed,” said Sheila McKay of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.  McKay said her members are concerned about the monetary costs and time commitment to the school districts if they are required to implement new programs.

State Rep. Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, agreed that there was a disconnect between the intent of the legislation and its implementation by the Connecticut State Department of Education.  “The waiver process is broken and that’s what we need to address,” he said.

O’Dea said there are a number of lawmakers currently working with the department to re-examine the waiver process.  He said his hope is that districts will be allowed to create their own evidence-based curriculum instead of being required to purchase a commercial product.  “I am confident a compromise will be reached,“ he said.  

But the author of the Right to Read legislation, State Sen. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, defended the state’s waiver process.  Speaking at an event at the Darien Library on Jan. 25, Miller said “The intent is not to make it onerous for districts but to make sure that every child has the opportunity to read.”.  

Miller said that all districts could benefit from a curriculum grounded in the science of reading and that literacy issues exist even in districts with strong test scores. “Is it really a high-performing district or high-performing parents who have the resources to add to whatever the district is doing?,” she asked.

Director of Communications for the department, Matthew Cerrone, said the agency is aware of the issue.  He said his department was committed to ensuring “that every district receives the assistance needed so all of their students have access to evidence-based instruction that aligns to the science of reading.”

Kim Healy, a member of the Reading Leadership Implementation Council which was created to provide guidance to the state’s newly created Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success, said districts should have been given the option to choose one of the approved literacy programs, create their own or continue being as successful as they are.

Healy has been critical of the law’s one-size-fits-all approach and of the state mandating costly commercial curricula without data to back up their effectiveness in boosting reading scores.  “You can buy a treadmill but it doesn’t mean you’re going to lose weight,” she said.