Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire
A magnet promoting the Alaska Reads Act released by the state last year sits atop a stack of Alaskan-authored and Alaska-centric books. A shortened session last year meant the bill, announced by Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, didn’t make it through the last Legislature. But there’s a new bill, nearly the same as the old bill, working its way through the Senate.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire A magnet promoting the Alaska Reads Act released by the state last year sits atop a stack of Alaskan-authored and Alaska-centric books. A shortened session last year meant the bill, announced by Senate Minority Leader Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, didn’t make it through the last Legislature. But there’s a new bill, nearly the same as the old bill, working its way through the Senate.

Reworked reading bill gets second act in Legislature

Kept from last session, the bill is pushed forward

The Alaska Reads Act is getting another go in the Legislature after last year’s short session left the bill’s journey to becoming a law only half complete.

The act was introduced to much fanfare last year, a joint project between Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican. The bill had broad bipartisan support but the Legislature convened early because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the bill never made it through the House.

That hasn’t stopped Begich from continuing to work on the bill. In a recent interview, Begich said he and Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson have continued to work on a new version of the bill now known as Senate Bill 8.

“The bill that we introduced included every one of the changes that came out of the Senate Education Committee hearings,” Begich said of the new bill. “There’s nothing in that bill that wasn’t agreed to by the commissioner or myself.”

The Alaska Reads Act is meant to address the state’s lagging reading scores and helps Alaska’s students read at proficient levels by third grade. According to the state’s 2018-2019 data, the last complete school year before the pandemic, 60% of Alaska students tested below or far below proficiency in English and language arts. The Reads Act contains three essential components Begich said will help create a strong reading program in the state.

The act would provide support for districts to set up their own pre-K and reading programs with teacher training, funding grants and other mechanisms to support early reading, according to the text of the bill. The programs would be voluntary for school districts, according to the act, and available to district-run, home-school programs. The act would require districts to implement personalized reading intervention programs for struggling students.

“We recognize three basic principles,” Begich said. “The first principle is that to have meaningful Pre-K you’re going to have to have meaningful reading programs. But in order to have a meaningful reading program, you have to have a meaningful pre-K program because the kids have to do the reading program.”

The third leg of the Reads Act is support from DEED that will help local districts implement those programs and other aspects of the act such as special interventions for students struggling with reading. The support aspect of the act, Begich said, went back to the 2007 Kristine Moore v. State of Alaska decision which said the state was not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide adequate education to all the state’s students.

[House member tests positive for COVID-19]

“The department has to provide the support for school districts and teachers so that they can make sure that pre-K and the reading programs are fully integrated and consistent across the board,” Begich said.

The pre-K component of the bill is going to be costly, Begich said, but even with the state’s economic situation as it is, he believes it’s worth the investment.

The fiscal note attached to the bill puts estimated costs for total operating expenditures at $4.3 million in Fiscal Year 2023, $6.8 million in FY 2024 and continuing to rise yearly. The note estimates roughly $17 million in total state aid for items included in the bill and roughly $51 million in total grants by FY 2030.

Begich said he believes the governor will support the bill so long as it contains the provisions agreed to by Johnson.

“He did continue his pre-K commitment to the budget and has continued to encourage his commissioner to be engaged with us,” Begich said of the governor. “I think the governor’s vision when it came to education was as informed as any I’ve seen in a while and seeing him rely on his commissioner for that expertise has been refreshing. I think that’s why it has been easy to continue working this process together.”

In an email Dunleavy spokesperson Corey Young said the administration was committed to working with the Legislature to pass a reading bill.

“Commissioner Johnson is working to support the Senate Education Committee members, including Senator Begich, as they discuss comprehensive reading policy that includes the main components in last year’s bills, and as they consider SB 8 and related legislation,” Young said.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, also has an education billimilar in some ways to the Alaska Reads Act. Begich said his bill and Hughes’ are similar in many ways and could potentially be combined into one bill. Begich said he would be willing to support a combined bill as long as it contains specifics items agreed to between himself and Johnson. Hughes’ bill contains a provision for student retention which Begich said he was opposed to.

Hughes office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The bill must go to the House of Representatives and before it can pass the Legislature, and then it goes to the governor for final approval. The House only recently organized before being slightly derailed by Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok, testing positive for COVID-19. House Speaker Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, has said lawmakers will work weekends to make up for lost time.

Both the updated Alaska Reads Act, SB 8, and Hughes’ education bill, SB 42, are still in the Senate Education Committee with hearings scheduled for Monday, March 1.

Begich was confident that with the continued commitment of DEED and the governor’s office, some kind of comprehensive reading bill will be able to pass the Legislature. Furthermore, he said, the state expects additional pandemic relief payments from Congress with money specifically set aside for education.

“We believe it’s going to mean substantive education money and what that would do is kind of jump start on the whole education reform piece and (be) kind of a hold harmless in terms of our own budget,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic I don’t think there’s anything we can do better than to come up with a comprehensive and meaningful approach to reading in the state; pre-K, reading and (DEED) support gets you there.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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