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Pa. legislators agree on supporting youth literacy, just not how to pay for it

Library books on shelves.
Michael Rubinkam

The need to improve youth literacy rates is proving a rare area of bipartisan agreement in the Pennsylvania capitol.

But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will put up the money to fund a new literacy program as the June 30 deadline for finishing next year’s budget approaches.

In a near-unanimous vote earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Senate passed West Hempfield Republican Sen. Ryan Aument’s bill to bolster youth literacy rates by reforming the state’s kindergarten through third-grade reading curricula.

Schools would be required to shift to “evidence-based” instruction focused on teaching students to understand aspects of reading, like phonemic awareness, the alphabet principle and reading comprehension.

Schools would be given a choice from a list of approved literacy tests to give their students three times per year. Any student who fails to meet the tests’ benchmark would be enrolled in an individualized program designed by a teacher.

A new Reading Leadership Council would work with the state Education Department on overseeing the program.

Its 20-person membership — reflecting the “geographic representation” of school districts — would be appointed by the education department and include kindergarten through third grade teachers, reading specialists, literacy coaches, elementary special education teachers and learning support employees. They would meet a minimum of every two months, and all recommendations by the council would be required to be posted on the Education Department’s website.

“Learning to read is a challenge for many, and that challenge does not discriminate,” Aument said during the June 11 debate on the bill. “Literacy cannot be a skill reserved for wealthy families and those who can afford private tutoring.”

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But one House Democrat essential to getting the bill passed said he’s concerned its language could be “extraordinarily prescriptive” in telling school districts how to administer the three yearly reading competency tests.

House Education Committee Chairman Pete Schweyer, of Lehigh County, said the creation of the Reading Leadership Council “seems like another layer of bureaucracy.”

Schweyer said he supports the intentions of the bill. “I just disagree on the how.”

Aument’s staff said Monday they’d met with leaders from school districts who wanted the state to provide a list of approved curriculum and test providers to save educators the time and effort it would take to do their own vetting.

The bill also allows districts to request approval of curriculum or tests that might not be on the established list.

Before the Senate’s passage, Aument pointed to the success of similar programs adopted in states like Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Since Mississippi passed its literacy program in 2013, the state climbed from 49th in fourth-grade reading to 21st nationwide in 2022.

The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy website hosts a map that shows about 21% of Lancaster County adults “lack basic literary skills.” The group also found that 130 million adult Americans struggle to read basic sentences.

Rep. Justin Fleming, a Dauphin County Democrat who sponsored a House version of Aument’s bill, did not respond to a request for comment sent to his spokeswoman.

Education package

Schweyer said he sees funding youth literacy programs as part of a broader budget deal.

House Democrats’ $1.1 billion proposed increase to basic education funding — passed in a 107-94 vote earlier this month — includes a provision for evidence-based reading similar to Aument’s proposal, though its 87 pages don’t include language that would create a Reading Leadership Council.

House Democrats referred Aument’s bill to Schweyer’s committee after it passed the Senate in a 48-1 vote. His bill does not include a provision to fund the program.

“This is a priority for me and for the Senate Republican Caucus, and as such, I certainly hope it will be a significant part of the budget negotiations this year,” Aument said Monday.

Sen. Judy Schwank, a Berks County Democrat, was the only dissenting “no” vote in the Senate. She said during the bill’s floor debate that it has “zero funding” to pay schools for implementing the programs.

According to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s estimates, implementing the program could cost school districts anywhere from $100 to $140 per student for the proficiency exams, new classroom materials and staff training. Schools can also expect to spend about $100,000 annually on hiring new staff to administer the program. Organizing the Reading Literacy Council would cost the state roughly $240,000 annually while it completes its work.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which worked with Aument’s office in drafting the legislation, said his group is supportive of it as long as the state helps schools fund the new requirements.

Ashley DeMauro Mullins, senior legislative director of ExcelinEd in Action, which has lobbied for such literacy programs in Pennsylvania and other states, also stressed the importance of funding the programs.

She said other states’ successes with the program hinged on the financial backing of their legislatures. DeMauro Mullins said she’s heard anywhere from $60 million to $70 million could be allocated by Pennsylvania’s legislature for the literacy program.

Read more from our partners, LNP | LancasterOnline.