Wisconsin Assembly votes to overhaul how schools teach reading

Legislation passed by the Wisconsin Assembly seeks to address low reading scores among students in the state by requiring more frequent tests, coaching and a curriculum that emphasizes phonics.

Associated Press

June 22, 2023

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Joel Kitchens stands and speaks into multiple microphones with multiple people standing behind him, in a room with a fireplaced topped by a carved lintel.

Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, speaks about legislation he introduced that would change how reading is taught in K-12 schools during a press conference at the Wisconsin State Capitol on June 8, 2023. On June 21, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill, which was developed by Republicans and staff in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The way reading is taught in Wisconsin would change to a phonics-based approach under a bill passed June 21 by the state Assembly, a Republican-authored measure that supporters say is designed to bolster flagging test scores.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers stopped short of endorsing the legislation, but his education department worked with Republicans on it for months. Jill Underly, secretary of the Department of Public Instruction, called the deal “a big step in the right direction.”

Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.

Backers say the education measure will address low reading scores by requiring more frequent tests, coaching and a curriculum that emphasizes phonics, the relationship between sounds and letters, over memorization.

“We are failing and this is an opportunity to change that,” said Republican Rep. Joel Kitchens, a lead sponsor of the bill.

A nationwide push to embrace similar 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.

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 Department of Public Instruction originally opposed the bill because it required low-scoring third graders to repeat reading classes over the summer or during their fourth-grade year. That idea was changed in favor of putting those students in a remedial program with mandatory summer reading courses.

Democrats, many of whom said they generally supported the bill, said it was moving too quickly for them to fully understand.

“There’s no reason why this bill needs to be rushed in this way,” Democratic Rep. Christine Sinicki said.

But Kitchens said any delay could lead to the deal falling apart.

The Assembly passed it on a bipartisan vote of 67-27, sending the measure first to the state Senate for consideration, then on to Evers for him to either sign or veto.

The policy changes would apply to both public schools and private ones that participate in state-funded school choice programs. Students in kindergarten through third grade would have to complete three reading assessments a year, up from just one currently. Republicans already set aside $50 million for new curriculum materials, teacher training and hiring reading coaches if the bill becomes law.

Evers vetoed a similar bill in 2021 because it did not include enough funding. Evers’ spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, said that the governor’s office was still reviewing the latest changes.

Kitchens said June 21 that he believed the governor would sign the bill because the state education department already signed off.

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

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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