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OPINION: PA Students Are Struggling to Read –We Must Help Them

It’s time to sound the alarm on early literacy in Pennsylvania.

Almost half of fourth graders across our state are reading below grade level, a challenge that exists in every corner of our state — from urban cities to our rural communities. Research has consistently shown that early literacy is critical to academic success and long-term achievement. A strong, evidence-based reading program, beginning in kindergarten and continuing into the third grade and beyond, gives students the best possible chance to maximize their education.

Because we are not born with the natural ability to read, the skills that lead students to become competent, lifelong readers must be explicitly and systematically taught at a young age with ample opportunity for practice and improvement.

As policymakers, we have the ability to ensure our students get the reading support they need in those early years so they can succeed later on in life.

Currently, one in five American adults struggle with reading basic sentences. For these individuals, tasks such as reading the mail, completing tax forms, or even engaging in civic duties can be nearly impossible.

Literacy cannot be a skill reserved for wealthy families and those who can afford private tutoring. Learning to read is a challenge for many, and that challenge does not discriminate.

To improve early literacy in Pennsylvania, we are sponsoring legislation mirroring a bipartisan proposal from Reps. Justin Fleming and Jason Ortitay that uses a three-pronged approach.

First, it bolsters reading instruction with evidence-based reading curricula, ensuring literacy achievement for children across the Commonwealth. Second, struggling readers will be identified through a universal screening within the first 30 days of school. Finally, looking at the screening data will help schools and educators design and implement intervention plans to prevent children from falling behind.

When states take this comprehensive approach, positive outcomes for students rise. FloridaMississippiNorth Carolina, and South Carolina have all showed and continue to show us what is possible when a comprehensive law is adopted and implemented with fidelity.

After Mississippi’s literacy program was passed in 2013, the state rose from 49th in 4th grade reading to 21st in the nation.

After two years of statewide teacher training in the science of reading, the latest assessment results also showed that North Carolina students in grades K-4 made greater mid-year gains than students in other states using the same assessment, with the percentage of kindergarten students meeting the benchmark almost doubling from 28 percent to 56 percent.

Those are the kind of results Pennsylvania families deserve, and we can’t afford to wait. Researchers have spent decades determining which approaches work best to teach reading, but if our teachers don’t have the resources they need to educate our kids, our outcomes are unlikely to improve. The pandemic brought uncertainty and turmoil to our lives, and our kids need us now more than ever. Literacy is a great equalizer. Whether a person can read is a critical predictor of educational and lifelong success. We cannot afford to have almost half of our students falling short of that goal.

By providing support for early literacy development, our legislation has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of countless Pennsylvania children and ensure they are able to reach their full potential.

Investing in education means investing in the future of our state and opening all students up to a lifetime of success.

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HOLMAN: PSSA Results Show Students Need a Lifeline from Failing Schools and Special Interests

Last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) released statewide scores from spring’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams. The results are damning.

A mere 22 percent of Pennsylvania eighth-grade students achieve proficiency or better in mathematics, while only 56 percent did so in language arts. Fourth-grade students did not fare much better, with 52 percent proficient in language arts and 42 percent proficient in mathematics. Proficiency rates across both grades and both subjects have declined from pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

It’s unacceptable that our education system fails to teach students basic reading and math. The PSSA data is just the latest evidence that students are struggling to recover from the haphazard and prolonged shutdown of public schools during COVID-19.

Released in October, the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or Nation’s Report Card, also shows significant decreases in reading and math proficiencies of Pennsylvania’s fourth- and eighth-grade students. But report card results for Catholic schools—which were among the quickest to re-open—far exceed the national public school average in NAEP testing.

Families must hold accountable those responsible for extended public school closures that too often put special interests—not student needs—first.

From the start of the pandemic, government union executives consistently advocated for school closures. According to Education Next, 40 percent of educators reported that labor leaders stood in the way of returning to in-person schooling.

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten’s suggested language was directly adopted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) overly restrictive school reopening policies. Locally, in Central Bucks School District, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) pressured Superintendent John Kopicki to defy the advice of Bucks County Health Director David Damsker and maintain onerous restrictions.

Union pressure worked—and kept students out of the classroom.

Since then, school union executives have refused to take any responsibility for their role in causing learning loss. Weingarten began by lying about AFT’s role in school closures and attempted to rewrite history by claiming that her union was in favor of reopening. Bill Senavaitis, the head of the Central Bucks School District Education Association, left his position after public outrage over his actions. However, he was re-promoted by the PSEA.

Even as students are struggling, government unions are concerned more with advancing their political and ideological agenda than improving educational quality. Union executives increasingly take public stances on controversial political issues such as abortion and gun control—which have nothing to do with getting our students back on track.

Government unions focus on the money, arguing that increasing school funding leads to better student outcomes. Pennsylvania currently ranks eighth in the nation for per student education funding at nearly $20,000 per student, with the average Pennsylvania public school receiving $3,942 more per student than the national average. Furthermore, school district reserve funds have increased by more than 30 percent since 2013.

Even if the government unions got more money, it would not improve the quality of education students receive. Decades of annual funding increases in Pennsylvania—without reforms or accountability—has not delivered better results.

So, what’s the solution for learning loss? In Pennsylvania, there is a proposed legislative solution to immediately get students in a better educational environment.

The Lifeline Scholarship Program would provide parents with a restricted-use scholarship account if their child attends a school in the bottom 15 percent of underperforming public schools. This scholarship account is equal to about a third of the public-school spending per student, meaning that school districts would keep the remainder of the funding despite not having to educate the scholarship recipient.

A version of this program passed the state House last spring. Furthermore, Governor-elect Shapiro has indicated that he supports the initiative. In 2023, our legislature should act swiftly to put Lifeline Scholarships on Shapiro’s desk.

After the devastating learning loss suffered during the pandemic, students need immediate relief. Rather than giving into the demands of teachers’ unions—who have consistently been on the wrong side of this issue—policymakers should look to empower students.

Lifeline Scholarships offer students the relief they need, giving them an opportunity to achieve a quality education.

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