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Budget or not, structured literacy program still on the table

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(The Center Square) – The state’s stalled budget negotiations left many other proposals on hold, including a bipartisan plan to increase childhood literacy.

Still, the lawmakers behind the legislation – Reps. Justin Fleming, D-Harrisburg, and Jason Ortitay, R-Bridgeville – remain hopeful that their proposal to create a three-step plan to implement a structured literacy approach for elementary schools will find its way to the governor’s desk soon.

“We want to do what works,” Ortitay said. “This is a program that works, and it works well.”

The trend toward “the science of reading” has been growing across the country over the past few decades, with at least twenty states codifying it in some fashion. Some have reported drastic improvements using the new approach.

Since its adoption of a structured literacy curriculum in 2013, Mississippi fourth-grade reading performance levels leaped from 49th in the nation to 21st – no small feat in a time period blighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher burnout, and learning loss among students.

Structured literacy focuses on the building blocks of reading comprehension and emphasizes phonemic awareness first, followed by each of the components of language leading up to semantic understanding, or meaning. While its development is widely understood to be beneficial for learners with dyslexia and other challenges, educators sing its praises for K-3 students across the board.

The language of Fleming and Ortitay’s bill calls for the development of a structured literacy curriculum, assessment of students within the first month of the school year, and then planning and implementation of appropriate reading interventions.

Fleming acknowledged that the bill “comes with a price tag,” but from his perspective, “we have the resources to do it.”

While the bill has not advanced to a fiscal evaluation, its sponsors are confident that the potential $30-$50 million price tag is one that could be paid for out of the existing education budget. The current budget proposal includes an 8% increase in basic education spending, the largest single-year increase in recent state history.

Fleming said the bill would spare districts the headache and expense of finding funding – leveling the playing field for poorer districts who would otherwise be unable to access costly third-party experts.

“The last thing I want to do is burden our schools with another unfunded band-aid,” he said.

While potential opposition to the bill highlights that Pennsylvania’s education system is one of local control, legislators have worked to create the opportunity for districts to choose texts and vendors at their discretion as they navigate how to assist teachers in learning the new approach.

Acknowledging that it will be some work up front for teachers, a segment of the workforce already worn thin, Ortitay is confident that the investment is one that will pay off for children.

“The opportunity is right now,” he said. “If people want to talk about equity in schools, this is the issue. Let’s look at basic literacy.”

Currently, half of the state’s fourth graders are reading below their grade level.

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