Political News

Nebraska lawmakers debate holding back kids who can't read

Posted May 11

— Nebraska lawmakers are debating whether schools should hold back third-grade students who aren't reading at grade level, but opponents including several former teachers and administrators say keeping children from fourth grade won't help them learn to read.

Senators adjourned Thursday without voting on the measure, but sponsor Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha said she's close to having enough support to force a vote next week. Linehan struggled with dyslexia as a child and didn't learn to read well until she was a junior in high school. She said young students need early intervention.

"We've got to expect every kid to read, and that's what this bill is about," Linehan said. "... Proceeding to the next grade unprepared is not fair, and it will severely limit the child's lifetime potential."

Nearly 90 percent of students who fail to earn high school diplomas and many adults who are in jail or receive state aid can't read well, Linehan said.

The bill would exempt students with individualized education plans and those learning English as a second language who have had less than two years of instruction. An amendment that has yet to be debated would allow parents to insist their children be moved to fourth grade.

Neighboring Iowa last month repealed a law set to take effect in 2018 that could have kept nearly a quarter of the state's third graders from advancing unless they completed a summer reading program. Lawmakers there abolished the program in part because of a statewide funding shortage, and the Nebraska proposal carries a hefty fiscal note as well.

Sen. John Kuehn, a veterinarian and biology professor from Heartwell, said he teaches too many college students who don't have fundamental reading and math skills. He said schools fail students by passing them without making sure they have the skills they need to succeed academically.

"Our children are capable and we have a right to expect that our children have the best opportunity to learn," he said.

Lawmakers need to think about underlying reasons children may have trouble reading, said Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, a former teacher. She said holding students back isn't a good answer, but the state should support pre-school, full-day kindergarten, professional development for teachers and summer reading programs.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said he appreciated the "highly noble" intent of the bill but didn't feel comfortable voting on it until senators take time to meet with parents, teachers, students and administrators in their districts.

"This is too serious and too important of an issue to simply pass legislation in an uninformed manner," Morfeld said.

Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, a retired superintendent, said he knows many high-quality teachers who help struggling students. It's incumbent on schools to make sure every elementary teacher is an expert when it comes to teaching reading, but lawmakers shouldn't make those decisions, he said.

"I don't like the idea of the Legislature doing an end run around the Department of Education and the state board of education," Baker said.

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jmshumway

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