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New NC Reading Bill Gets A Quick Start In Senate And House

Senate Leader Phil Berger addresses the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.
Senate Leader Phil Berger addresses the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.

North Carolina state Senate leader Phil Berger's latest plan to boost early reading skills won approval from the Senate Education Committee Tuesday and will go to the House Education Committee Wednesday.

Berger introduced the 13-page Senate Bill 387, labeled the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, on Monday. It mandates phonics-based instruction for young students and provides such supports as new educator training, teacher bonuses and individual reading plans for students who fall behind.

It builds on North Carolina’s Read To Achieve program, which was approved in 2012. Berger acknowledged that program has failed.

"We’ve been stuck for a number of years with fully 40-plus percent of our third-graders not reading at grade level, and we’ve got to do something different," he told the Senate committee.

Berger said he believes this plan will make a difference but says if there are no results after three or four years, he’s willing to try again to ensure grade-level reading skills by third grade. Reading scores didn't rise significantly — and in some cases declined — after years of Read To Achieve instruction, testing and summer camps.

"By the time they get to middle school it’s almost too late to make up," Berger said. "And so we’ve got to get this right."

The bill refers to "the science of reading," the latest term of choice for phonics. Berger and national experts acknowledge it's part of what has been dubbed "reading wars," with people who support balanced literacy or whole language on the other side.

"Training teachers in the science of reading is a critical strategy for literacy improvement," Berger said.

Like Read To Achieve, the latest bill discourages "social promotion" of third-graders who fall below grade level on year-end reading exams and offers reading camps to help them catch up. It would require school districts to offer signing bonuses for teachers with a history of strong growth on reading exams, as well as performance bonuses based on the number of students who reach proficiency.

"The idea is to try to entice our best and brightest, as far as the teachers are concerned, to participate in these camps. It is that important that they do so," Berger said.

He told the Senate committee about $58 million in ongoing Read To Achieve funding would be available for the new program. He said another $30 million to $35 million could be required to pay for teacher training, probably using the LETRS program.

"If we get success out of this for that amount of money, we will have done a great deal," he said.

The House Education Committee called a meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday to take up the reading bill. Committee approval is a first step toward bringing a bill to the House and Senate for votes.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.