Before session ends, reading intervention bill gets through by close House vote

‘I remain very skeptical at the notion that increased testing is going to solve these underlying inequities,’ says Rep. Zulkosky

By: - May 19, 2022 5:35 pm

Members of the Alaska House watch the final vote on an omnibus K-12 education bill during the last regular day of the Alaska Legislature’s 2022 session, May 18, 2022. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

By a close vote of 21-19, the House passed a bill implementing a statewide approach to how schools intervene when students have difficulty reading. The measure had been blocked in the House, but the Senate included it at the last minute in another bill. Both chambers passed the bill, although most members of the House majority caucus opposed it. 

The reading intervention bill was  a priority of Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage. It is intended to assist students in achieving reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

House Bill 114, originally related to education loans, left the House on April 25 at two and a half pages long. When it got to the Senate floor on Tuesday, that body made amendments, including adding the reading legislation, known as Senate Bill 111. As a result, the bill that came back to the House for a concurrence vote Wednesday night was 45 pages long. Senate Bill 111 passed the Senate April 16. On the House side, the bill went through 60 amendments in House Education before it stalled. 

Despite the final vote count in the House Wednesday evening – the last night of the regular session – more representatives spoke in opposition of the bill than in favor during floor debate, like Bethel Democratic Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky. She said, “My concerns are rooted in the protection of small schools, Alaskan Native children, Alaskan Native language-speaking students, that such an onerous policy would unintentionally disadvantage these groups to their peers. I’m deeply disturbed by the idea that our body would concur with a bill that removes local control from school districts, passes unfunded mandates, and allows the State of Alaska to interfere into what should be a decision between parents, students and teachers.”

I also remain very skeptical at the notion that increased testing, be it in the form of reading screeners, is going to solve these underlying inequities and the root causes for the disparities in educational achievement.

– Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky, D-Bethel, in describing her opposition to a reading intervention measure

In the bill, reading proficiency is based on a statewide screening tool administered to students in grades K-3. The bill details new requirements for schools, including implementing the statewide reading screening tool, training staff, reporting to the Department of Education and Early Development, providing intensive reading intervention services, and providing individual reading improvement plans for K-3 students who are deemed deficient in reading.

“I also remain very skeptical at the notion that increased testing, be it in the form of reading screeners, is going to solve these underlying inequities and the root causes for the disparities in educational achievement. In fact, I can imagine that these steps would make these disparities worse,” Zulkosky said. 

Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, agreed with the point about local control, “This bill represents a power grab by the state to define standards and solve problems that local control should be solving. Once we lose local control, it is next to impossible to get it back.”

The bill “does not help rural Alaska,” Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon said, and sidesteps the real issue: teacher recruitment and retention. “My superintendents tell me if we can get qualified teachers to come out and to stay and to get familiar with the communities, we can get our kids reading. We don’t need another bill.”

Another part of the bill adds $30 to the base amount the state pays per student, increasing it from $5,930 to $5,960. Multiple representatives took issue with the size of the increase, saying it wasn’t enough. The amount per student is known as the base student allocation, or BSA.

“$30 per student BSA can’t possibly pay for the extensive mandates. These aren’t unfunded mandates, they are grossly underfunded mandates,” Anchorage Democratic Rep. Zack Fields said.

I think it's wrong that people see accountability measures as being some sort of showing that schools are failing. It's not. It’s trying to offer support where support is needed so that we have successes.

– Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, speaking in support of a reading intervention measure

Majority leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, disagreed with the opposition’s take on the base student allocation: “This BSA increases that we have right here is the best BSA increase that we’ve seen in ‘18, ‘19, ‘20, ‘21, ‘22 – all those years combined – because there was nothing. There hasn’t been any BSA increase.”

Tuck said the bill supports all students to read at grade level by the end of third grade. “It does have accountability measures in it. I think it’s wrong that people see accountability measures as being some sort of showing that schools are failing. It’s not. It’s trying to offer support where support is needed so that we have successes.”

Bill supporter James Kaufman, R-Anchorage, said the bill is “an incremental improvement and it may not satisfy all of the wants and needs but it is viewed as a step forward.”

During an interview Wednesday night, Begich said he was disappointed and surprised by those in the House who voted against the bill. “It surprised me to see those who have advocated for base student allocation, which they never brought to the floor of the House, actually vote against the base student allocation, regardless of the size it was put before them. That surprises me.”

James Brooks contributed to this report.

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Lisa Phu
Lisa Phu

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. She's also been Public Information Officer for the City and Borough of Juneau, lead facilitator for StoryCorps Alaska based in Utqiagvik, and a teacher in Tanzania and Bhutan. Originally from New York, Lisa is a first generation Chinese American and a mom of two young daughters. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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