Members of the Legislature's Education Interim Committee can read the handwriting on the wall: Unless Utah children come out of school with adequate reading skills, they all have engaged in a costly failure.
The committee started out Wednesday to consider whether a reading remediation bill passed two years ago should be allowed to die. Instead, the panel revived the notion and asked for new legislation that would provide a pilot study of reading remediation for children in kindergarten through third grade.The ultimate cost of making reading remediation available statewide could top $20 million, the committee was told. The panel will pursue $250,000 to $300,000 in the 1992 legislative session to test programs in several Utah school districts.
The original bill passed but was never funded. It was sponsored by Rep. Jerrold S. Jensen, R-Salt Lake. He pushed for the remediation funding after teaching a week in a Salt Lake high school, where he learned that 13 students in a class of 41 were reading at second- to fourth-grade levels. Support for the bill was good, but in the final hours of the 1990 Legislature, the $160,000 funding failed to materialize.
"Unless you're willing to fund it, let it die," said Bonnie Morgan, curriculum specialist with the State Office of Education.
The prospects of continuing to allow 20 percent to 30 percent of Utah's students to read below grade level, however, convinced the committee it should try again. Children who never learn to read well pay a price throughout their lives, Morgan said.
"If you can't read, you have trouble in all academic areas," she said. "Reading is critical to everything we do. It's a lifelong advantage or disadvantage. I prefer to put money in reading remediation, but it should be aggressive or not at all."
The committee debated at what grade remediation should be implemented. Sen. Dixie Leavitt suggested grades two to four, when the slow-starters have caught up and those with ongoing problems have been identified. But the consensus was that remediation should begin in the very first grades.
Morgan said teachers can identify a child who will have trouble with reading often within days.
State PTA President Joyce Muhlestein said her organization, which helped draft the original bill, was surprised to learn it had never been implemented.
She said that unless the state is willing to pay the costs of getting children adequately prepared in reading, "you'll have to pay the greater costs at the bottom of the cliff."