Topeka — Gov. Sam Brownback says he has seen progress toward some of the goals for Kansas he outlined as a candidate, but he acknowledges more must be done to address another one: boosting the reading levels of younger students in the state.
The Republican governor is preparing to lay out an agenda for the 2013 legislative session that includes putting more focus and perhaps resources into fourth-grade reading.
“We just have not done enough about the reading issue. I was serious about it when I ran on it. I’m going to push harder on that,” Brownback said.
According to the Kansas Department of Education, 64 percent of Kansas fourth-grade students scored below the proficient level on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests in 2011, the most recent figures available.
By comparison, 16.6 percent of students tested scored below the standard on the Kansas assessments, which are different from the NAEP exams in scope and content.
Fourth-grade scores were among the five issues on Brownback’s so-called road map that he campaigned on when running for office in 2010. He said progress was being made on three items — increasing net personal income, creating jobs and focusing more on career and technical education. The governor says improving reading scores also would help address the fifth, childhood poverty, by preparing students with skills after high school.
Diane DeBacker, commissioner of the Kansas Department of Education, said research has shown school readiness is improved by more words spoken at home — including through reading to children. Confidence in public education is at historic lows while achievement continues to improve, she said.
“We are just living in an age when people want more and are expecting more,” DeBacker said. “It’s not something that we can shy away from.”
One example she cites as working to address the early learning problem is The Opportunity Project in Wichita, a public-private partnership established 10 years ago to provide education to low-income children.
Janice Smith, executive director of the centers, said the model has worked because of the partnership between private entities and the public sector to meet the needs of children. Three schools provide learning to more than 500 students this year.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that it’s important to get all the parties to sit down and discuss their vision and mission,” Smith said. “We all agree on what we want to do and who we want to serve. The question is then what are the nuts and bolts to make it work?”
Studies conducted by The Opportunity Project found that students who have been through the centers score an average of 10 points higher on state reading assessments and nine to 10 points higher on math than students who didn’t attend who are demographically similar.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis said he supported the governor’s goal for the session, calling it one “that we all should share.”
“The question is can you improve outcomes while slashing funding and sending a message to teachers that they aren’t valued?” the Lawrence Democrat said. “I think we probably have disagreements on just how we obtain that goal.”
Democrats and others have been critical of cuts to school funding in recent years that have resulted in the elimination of staff and support structures that help teachers get more out of their students.
Legislators are awaiting a ruling in Shawnee County District Court brought by school districts and parents challenging cuts imposed since 2008. The plaintiffs are asking a three-judge panel to rule the state must restore the cuts.
Brownback tried in 2012 to advance a new formula for funding schools but was met with resistance in both chambers of the Legislature. He’s hopeful that new leadership in the House and Senate education committees will be receptive to his desires and consider changes during the 90-day session.