‘Right to Read’ legislation sparks concern as school districts seek waivers

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After passage of ‘Right to Read’ legislation in 2021, the State Department of Education has approved the implementation of specific reading curricula and programs for kindergarten through third grade by July 1 of this year.

However, many districts across the state are opting to submit a waiver to continue to offer their current curricula. 

“At this point, we have significant concerns about the state basically dictating what program we’ll use to teach students the curriculum,” said Jeff Solan, superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools. “I fully appreciate that the state can articulate what the standards should be, but not how we should teach it. So at this point, we’re going to be pursuing the waiver process.” 

In June 2021, the Right to Read legislation was passed as part of Sections 394-404 of the Budget Implementer Bill (Public Act No. 21-22). 

“The legislation systematizes a statewide reading response — based on the Science of Reading — by requiring the state to oversee all state and local efforts related to literacy, including setting reading curriculum requirements for districts, providing professional development, hiring external literacy coaches and coordinating with teacher preparation programs,” according to the legislation’s website. “A newly established Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success (The Center) will be the hub of that work.”

The Center has various components to its legislative mandates, including establishing the center itself, creating universal K-3 reading assessments and more. 

At a webinar hosted by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education on Friday, state Department of Education representatives shared that prior to the pandemic, 54% of Connecticut public school students in third grade were proficient in English language arts (ELA). This means that about 17,000 students in the state’s public schools were not proficient.

Now, after the pandemic, the proficiency rate is 47%, so around 19,000 students are not proficient in ELA. 

In Meriden, Daniel Crisipino, director of school leadership for the elementary schools, said kindergarten and first grade classes have adopted one of the approved curricula. 

“It was really nothing that shocked us,” Crisipino said. 

For grades two and three, Crisipino said the district has its own “homegrown” curriculum, so they will be putting in a waiver to continue to offer this program. 

“It’s a close read model,” Crisipino said. “... We use a lot of programs that give kids multiple opportunities to be able to close that gap, the reading achievement gap, which is really a big piece of what the whole legislation is.” 

As of Friday, the state had approved seven curriculum models/programs, with two more being under review. However, district leaders opting to submit a waiver, due Feb. 28 by 5 p.m., would require the district to submit:

Data collected from reading assessments that are disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, eligibility for free or reduced price lunches, students whose primary language is not English and students with disabilities.

A strategy to address remaining achievement gaps as the existence of a significant disparity in the academic performance of students among and between racial groups, ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, genders and English language learners and students whose primary language is English. 

Along with this, districts must demonstrate that their reading curriculum/model is evidenced-based and scientifically based. It must also focus on areas of reading including: oral language, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, rapid automatic name or letter name fluency, reading comprehension and phonemic awareness. 

At the webinar hosted by CABE Friday, Melissa K. Wlodarczyk Hickey, director of the Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success for the state Department of Education, said that all waivers will have to undergo a review process.

“Reviewers may have questions so it may become more of a back and forth than just a, ‘This is what you provided to us to review, therefore that’s all we’re going to be looking at,’” Hickey said. “So right now we really can’t assign a date because we want to make sure we’re doing each and every review in a very meticulous way.” 

Hickey did ensure that the districts who submit waivers will hear back by the July 1 deadline of when the new curricula has to be adopted. 

Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi of Wallingford Public Schools said her district is also planning on submitting a waiver, but at the Dec. 19, Board of Education meeting, Carrie LaTorre, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district will continue reviewing the state recommended plans due to not knowing when the district will hear back from the state.

“We firmly believe that we align with the science of reading and what we’re doing is best practiced for students,” LaTorre said. “We feel that after looking at some of these programs, in a lot of areas what we’re doing we feel the materials are a better fit for our students.” 

Tammy Raccio, chair of Wallingford’s board of education, said that the district has been working with Literacy How, a nonprofit that goes into the schools to teach teachers how to properly teach students how to read, for about four years. 

According to a survey by Education Week Research Center, 65% of higher education professors teach the three-cueing system, which is not in line with the scientific evidence base around teaching reading.  

“The fundamental problem here is not just getting a better boxed program, one of the 6 or 7 that the state picked out,” Raccio said. “The state really needs to look at the reading programs in the higher education institutions.”  

In case the waiver doesn’t pan out, LaTorre said she has “earmarked” a budget of $700,000. 

“It is for K through three, so that’s four grade levels and, you know, each program has its core program and then the a la carte that comes with it,” LaTorre said. “... We haven’t bought an elementary program in quite a few years.”

At the webinar, Hickey did mention that the state is hoping to offer grants for districts to assist with the costs of purchasing materials.

“We were very fortunate, the Black and Puerto Rican caucus were able to devote some of the ARPA funding from the governor’s office, from the state level, to the Connecticut State Department of Education to support district local and regional Boards of Education to support the legislation around the (Center for Literacy Research and Reading Success),” Hickey said. “It is $25 million over the next two years, so approximately $12.5 million each year. The intent of that money is to support all of the legislation initiatives.”

In Cheshire, Solan said that at this time, the district is not budgeting to implement a new reading curriculum for K-3. 

“To just adopt a program is not something that we enter lightly,” Solan said. “It takes a lot of money to either buy the program and train the teachers that we have in implementing that program, so at this point, we’re hopeful that there might be some legislative intervention or that the state Department of Education may kind of shift their stance.”

Southington Public Schools is also going to be pursuing the waiver option, said Superintendent Steven Madancy.

“The district has invested substantial time and funds, both in materials and related professional development, over the past 15 years and it would be a shame to see that go by the wayside and force the district to abandon a curriculum that we have made an enormous investment in to adopt one of five approved programs used by only 11 of 164 districts across the state with a very history of success at this point,” Madancy said. 

Both Raccio and Madancy told the Record-Journal that the implementation of this new program is coming at the peak of budget season. 

“The list of approved programs wasn’t released until late September providing little to no time for districts to properly vet or budget for inclusion in a fiscal year 2024 budget and the waiver wasn’t released until Dec. 15,” Madancy said. “Given the late release of the waiver, and little time for the district to even consider a stance, coupled with the enormous costs associated with this unfunded mandate, how can the state expect any district who may not already be using one of these five programs to be able to adhere to this legislation within the established timelines. Because of this, many superintendents I have discussed this with have indicated that they will be pursuing waivers or extensions.” 

As a result of this legislation, Frances Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), sent a letter to Commissioner Charlene M. Russell-Tucker to propose solutions in regards to the Right to Read Legislation. 

Some of these including not requiring the districts to purchase instructional materials, having the state Department of Education work with school district leaders and reading specialists to identify and approve curriculum models, not new materials, to support reading success and accept and grant waiver applications from districts who have curricula that are:

Evidence-based and scientifically based

Focused on the competency of these areas of reading: oral language, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, rapid automatic name or letter name fluency, reading comprehension and phonics. 

“CAPSS members have long valued their collaborative, productive working relationship with the CSDE,” Rabinowitz wrote. “This relationship has been sorely tested by the actions and edicts set forth in the September 29th Memorandum. We implore the CSDE to reconsider and rescind its September 29th Memorandum (and the subsequent CSDE Waiver Clarification) so that school districts throughout the state and the CSDE can work collaboratively on behalf of the students we all serve on this important issue.” 

jsimms@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @jessica_simms99


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