MONTPELIER — With next Friday’s crossover deadline approaching, the House and Senate Education Committees are both working on bills aimed at improving literacy among the state’s youngest learners.
The Senate proposal, which is a committee draft, and the House version, H. 101, date back to efforts made last year at responding to a 2019 dip in Vermont’s literacy scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
The 2019 scores showed that the state’s fourth and eighth graders, while above the national average in reading, had scored lower than they had in 2017. In 2015, Vermont fourth graders scored at 230 on the NAEP assessment. That score fell to 226 in 2017, and to 222 in 2019.
The Senate version proposes granting $3 million in federal funds to school districts for professional development in teaching literacy. It also creates the position of statewide literacy coordinator in the Agency of Education and creates an advisory commission charged with sustaining and improving literacy for the state’s K-12 students.
The Senate proposal also calls for a review of teacher preparation programs to assess how teachers are prepared to use “evidence-based literacy instruction,” and licensing and re-licensing criteria pertaining to literacy.
In the House, the bill is designed to help supervisory unions implement Act 173, the state’s special education reform law, by providing students with necessary literacy skills “and that students who struggle receive all instruction from highly skilled teachers.” It proposes $2 million in grant funding, and is more specific than its Senate counterpart in prescribing how grant proposals should address literacy instruction needs.
“The main points are that focuses on how to improve core literacy instruction in classroom for all students, and make sure students who struggle are receiving instruction from highly skilled teachers,” House Education Committee member Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, said.
While paraprofessionals have contributed a great deal to assuring students aren’t falling behind in literacy, the goal is to improve instruction across all levels, James said.
Also cued up for departure from the House Education Committee next week are a community schools pilot program, and a bill reinventing the school buildings needs program.
The community schools bill, H. 106, sponsored by James, would provide funding for up to 10 districts to start a pilot program.
While many schools are the hub of their town or neighborhood in myriad ways, the community school model formalizes partnerships between schools and other community resources, such as health, social services and family outreach. Molly Stark School in Bennington already follows a similar model, and third grade teacher Andrew LaBarge testified before the committee on how it works.
James said she and Education Committee chairperson Rep. Kathryn Webb visited the school in October and found a food truck handing out fresh produce and recipes, a room set aside for dental services, a pre-Kindergarten program with extended hours for working families and summer programming.
“You can see in time of COVID how important schools are as the hub of their communities, the role they play beyond the classic old-fashioned notion of teaching only,” James said. She believes now, as the pandemic seems to be winding down, is a perfect time to address the inequities it has exposed in the interest of improving student outcomes.
The school building bill, which is also a House Education Committee draft proposal, includes proposals for a third-party facilities analysis, a report on funding, and a requirement that school districts develop and maintain a capital improvement plan.
The state halted its financial assistance to school building projects in 2007, and a 2019 report by the Vermont Superintendents Association found that the state’s public K-12 districts had $565 million worth of projects either proposed or planned.