KU Statehouse Wire Service
Tammi Hope recalled seeing her son change when he entered the third grade. The once happy, excited and confident boy withdrew from school — falling well behind the other students in his class.
“I could no longer stand by as a parent and watch him fail both emotionally, physiologically and educationally,” said Hope, a Wichita resident.
Hope’s son was diagnosed with dyslexia, a common learning disorder affecting areas of the brain that process language. After years of struggling to get her son back on track, she now hopes to see change in the way schools provide resources for the disability.
In 2019, 28.58 percent of third-graders scored a level one, the lowest level, on the Kansas reading assessments based on research conducted by the Kansas Department of Education. Because of this, the House created HB 2552, the Kansas Reading Readiness Act.
The bill would provide students under the average reading level an opportunity to receive additional evidence-based education at their designated public school or attend a private school designed to help students who struggle with reading.
“Twenty-eight percent is 10,193 children. That is more than the population of 68 of our 105 counties,” Rep. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, said. “I don’t think any of us would say that that is acceptable for anyone’s kids because we know that those students scoring at that level are four times more likely to drop out of high school.”
Give the kids a chance
During the Education Department meeting, Hope and Erickson were not the only two to speak out on the matter. Jeanine Phillips’s son has struggled with dyslexia since kindergarten. Because of his early diagnosis, Phillips, of Wichita, co-founded the organization Fundamental Learning Center, aimed at teaching children affected by dyslexia to read and write.
The program also educates adults by providing them with evidence-based literacy programs for children. It also helps educate teachers on how to appropriately teach a child with dyslexia. This evidence-based program has the same practices they hope to implement in Kansas schools for struggling readers.
“Please do the right thing and give our kids a standing opportunity in life,” Phillips said.
Proponent Kristen Rowley, a mom of four, believes that the bill will help many families as well. Rowley is a parent of two dyslexic children ages 11 and nine. Her daughter was 10 when she underwent evaluation at the fundamental learning center and learned she had hallmark signs of a dyslexic learner. By this time she was in third grade, Rowley’s daughter had already fallen far behind her peers in her ability to read.
“She had become shy, withdrawn, avoided situations that would require her to read out loud, and worst of all, she labeled herself as stupid. She was discouraged, demoralized, and had no self confidence in any area of her life.” Rowley said.
Rowley trained with the Fundamental Learning Center in order to teach her daughter to read using evidence-based instruction. Although the training was expensive and time consuming, she saw improvement in her daughter.
“She improved her reading level by more than two grade levels, and she is now a confident, outgoing young lady. She no longer labels herself as stupid, she labels herself as smart and strong,” Rowley said.
Rowley’s son also struggled with dyslexia and was evaluated. He also has been making great strides academically.
“We can do right by the next generation of Kansas students,” Rowley said. “Kansas children are Kansas’ future. What is good for them is good for all of us.”
Critics of the bill
Although the bill is important for many families, there were also individuals who felt the implementation of the bill would not be in the state’s best interest.
Leah Fliter, advocacy and outreach specialist at Kansas Association of School Boards, spoke in opposition of the Reading Readiness Act.
“It is impossible to justify giving public school students a voucher to attend private schools when those schools also demonstrate achievement gaps,” Fliter said. “The bill also contains no requirement that private schools track the voucher students to determine if they are indeed performing better at the private school.”
Fliter said that with the lack of transparency requirements, there would be no way of knowing if evidence-based practices are more or less effective than what is already being taught in public schools.
Erin Gould, a member of Game on for Kansas Schools, agreed with Fliter’s statement that giving vouchers for public school students to attend private school is not right. Gould also said the bill was largely based on the alleged superiority of private schools and a false narrative that if a student could only attend a private school instead of a public one, they would achieve academic success.
“We recognize the right for private schools to exist in Kansas, but we don’t believe that in an environment of limited resources, it makes sense for the state to fund both public and private schools,” Gould said.
Today, 18 states are implementing legislation to help students who are struggling with reading because it’s critical for students. The majority of the states that have enforced legislation have a mandatory retention policy for third grade. If a student is not reading at a third-grade level, they have to stay in the third grade.
“What we are proposing is an educational savings account. We want students to have an option to be successful. We are simply saying we cannot allow students to continue to be at this level,” Erickson said.
Gracen Gueldner is a University of Kansas Senior from Olathe, Kan., studying journalism.