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Lobbyist Money Help  

Literacy bills move through legislature

April 06, 1999
By: Edward Klump
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 425, HB 818, HB 889

JEFFERSON CITY - According to Mary Humlicek, there isn't one magic formula by which kids learn to read.

"The answer isn't in a box," she said. "The answer's in a teacher's knowledge," said Humlicek, Reading Recovery site director for the Columbia School District and nine other districts in the state.

Literacy programs like her's have become a major focus for state lawmakers this year.

Humlicek's Reading Recovery program helps struggling first graders with their reading skills through tutoring sessions.

She said that while children learn in different ways, it's important that all students can read by the second or third grade. Humlicek also said increased local control of programs and teacher training are two ways literacy can be improved.

Enhanced literacy programs with these goals in mind are top initiatives of Gov. Mel Carnahan and the House Democratic leadership. Both the Missouri School Board Association and the Missouri Teachers Association also said they support several pieces of reading legislation.

Various proposals before the General Assembly would establish a program to provide grants to schools for enhanced reading programs and give schools more control over student promotion.

"Schools would look at achievement scores and decide if they thought it would be beneficial for the kids," said Sen. Steve Stoll, D-Festus and sponsor of a bill that would cover both grants and student promotion.

Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, and Rep. Rita Days, D-St. Louis, are sponsoring separate House bills that are similar to Stoll's plan. Gaw's proposal would establish a grant program, and Days' plan would seek remedial classes for struggling students.

Stoll's bill would create a four-year matching grant program for reading achievement in schools. The money would be used to prepare faculty to teach or assess student reading skills.

Stoll said schools would be required to draw up goals before beginning the program, and schools who fail to make progress could be dropped. But Stoll said the best part of his plan involves those schools who do achieve their standards.

"If they meet these goals, they can get their portion of the funds back," he said.

The second part of Stoll's plan would affect promotion to the next grade level. He said schools currently have only two options for inadequate readers -- repetition of the grade or social promotion. The latter occurs when students move to the next grade level regardless of their skills.

Stoll said his plan would give schools more power in helping struggling readers. Under the plan, students could be required to receive additional education outside of class.

"This bill gives the school district the explicit power to require remedial classes or tutoring for promotion," he said.

Stoll said he sees his plan being used between first and fourth grades. He said his goal is to get kids reading by the end of third grade, which will help them in other subjects.

"The purpose is not to hold them back, but to help them catch up and be good readers," he said.

Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesman, said the governor is confident that a reading bill will receive funding, and there's a good chance something will be passed. Stoll's plan is seeking final approval in the Senate before it heads to the House. Gaw's bill has cleared the House -- by an overwhelming margin of 147-2 -- and is pending in the Senate. Days' plan is awaiting a vote by the House.

Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis County, and Rep. Merrill Townley, R-Chamois, were the only two lawmakers who voted against Gaw's plan. Murphy said he's not against increased literacy, but it's just not the legislature's place to micro manage Missouri's education.

"We shouldn't mandate things," he said. "We should have competent people in education. If not, let's get competent people."

Stoll, Gaw and Days said they are aware of each other's bills, and they hope something on the issue passes. Gaw said he's optimistic that many lawmakers are realizing how important the basics like reading and math are.

"If the foundation is weak, it only makes it more likely that the foundation will crumble in the future," he said.