Evers signs bill overhauling Wisconsin's elementary reading education

A Republican-authored measure signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is designed to improve sagging reading scores in the state and emphasizes phonics over memorization.

Associated Press

July 19, 2023

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Tony Evers stands and speaks into a microphone mounted on a wood podium, with people standing behind him and to his side in a room with U.S. and Wisconsin flags in the background.

Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers speaks at a signing ceremony for the 2023-25 state budget at the Wisconsin Capitol Building in Madison on July 5, 2023. Evers signed a bill into law on July 19, 2023, overhauling the way reading is taught in the state. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill into law on July 19 overhauling the way reading is taught in the state.

The Republican-authored bill is meant to improve sagging reading scores and emphasizes phonics, the relationship between sounds and letters, over memorization. It also requires more frequent reading tests and employs reading coaches to help struggling students.

“We have to ensure our kids have the reading and literacy tools and skills to be successful both in and out of the classroom,” Evers said in a statement. “This bill, modeled after initiatives that have been successful in other states and fine-tuned with significant changes throughout the legislative process, is a step in the right direction.”

Evers, a Democrat, and the state Department of Public Instruction initially opposed the bill over a requirement that low-scoring third-graders repeat reading classes. That measure was changed to put low-scoring students in a remedial program with mandatory summer reading courses.

The department worked with Republican lawmakers for months to create the plan, which passed both chambers of the GOP-controlled Legislature in June with some bipartisan support.

Evers, who was state superintendent before he became governor, called July 19 for the Legislature to also pass other investments in public education.

Only about a third of Wisconsin fourth graders scored high enough to be considered proficient readers in 2022, marking a 20-year low, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The bill Evers signed into law requires students in kindergarten through third grade to complete three reading tests a year, up from just one currently. Those tests will be used to more quickly identify struggling students and get them extra help.

The plan applies to public schools and private schools that receive funding through Wisconsin’s school choice voucher programs. Republicans already set aside $50 million in the state budget for new curriculum materials, teacher training and hiring reading coaches.

Evers vetoed a similar bill in 2021 because it did not include enough funding.

A nationwide push to embrace similar teaching methods has gained ground as lawmakers look to address learning losses attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin’s bill is modeled after literacy laws in Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the “Mississippi miracle,” because the changes led to dramatic improvements in the state’s reading scores over the past decade.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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