Bill to strengthen dyslexia intervention in schools meets resistance

Sen. Joyce Elliott

A passionate group of parents and reading advocates left the state Capitol disappointed but determined not to give up last week when a bill that would give teeth to a law that requires dyslexia screening and intervention in public schools failed to pass out of a Senate committee.

The National Institutes of Health defines dyslexia as a type of learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read. It is not connected to a person’s IQ. “People with dyslexia usually have trouble making the connections between letters and sounds and with spelling and recognizing words,” an NIH website reads.

In the 2015-16 school year, there were 4,341 students in Arkansas identified with dyslexia, according to the 2015 adequacy study conducted by the state Bureau of Legislative Research.

Kim Head, the mother of two sons with dyslexia, attended the Senate Education Committee meeting Wednesday. “When a law is passed there is the assumption that it will be followed, and when it’s not, what do you do?” she asked a reporter.

In 2013 a law was enacted that required school districts to screen all students in kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia so that the necessary intervention services could be offered to students in need.

Senate Bill 708 would set a Nov. 15 deadline for screenings and would strengthen the reporting requirements of the law. Superintendents would be required to post information about the dyslexia program on a public school district website or in writing to parents. The bill would also codify enforcement measures. A public school district that failed to comply could be placed on probation and would have to post on its website or notify parents in writing the reason for its probationary status.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) filed SB 708. “I’m hearing over and over and over again to the point of ad nauseam that there are some school districts that are not doing what they need to do per the legislation or per the needs of kids who are dyslexic,” she said.

The 2015 adequacy study found that in the 2015-16 school year, there were 4,645 students in Arkansas who were receiving services through their district’s dyslexia program. But Elliott said some districts are not testing students until late in the school year.

“There are school districts who are using the old notion of fail first before you get intervention, and that’s just unacceptable,” she said.

Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock), chair of the Senate Education Committee, initially declared the bill had passed by a voice vote with some dissent, which prompted supporters of the bill to start clapping. Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) then called for a roll call, and the vote was split on party lines. The three Democrats on the committee voted in favor, while three of the five Republicans voted against it, and the other two abstained from voting.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale), who did not vote on the bill, said he had walked into the meeting late and had not heard Elliott’s presentation. Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning), who also abstained from voting, said, “It’s a matter of enforcing law we got on the books. That’s why I didn’t vote for it at all. I think we’ve got something on the book and we need to enforce what we got.”

Hester said that the focus on students with dyslexia meant other students who need reading intervention were being overlooked.

“We understand that we have a finite amount of resources and with these bills we’re saying we’re focusing these resources down here, which means other kids not in that box get less resources,” Hester said.

Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, which represents superintendents, answered questions during the committee meeting at the request of Johnson for feedback “from somebody in the field.”

Abernathy said dyslexia screening usually happens on the first day of the school year. He also said the dyslexia screening law has shifted the emphasis of some schools’ intervention programs. “It’s more zeroed in dyslexia. Is that a good thing? Bad thing? You know, that’s a policy decision, but it has, in fact, shifted personnel in order to implement this law.”

The Arkansas Association of Education Administrators has not taken a position for or against SB 708.

Johnson and Sen. Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) expressed concerns that the reporting requirements in SB 708 would be overly burdensome for school districts.

Hendren said in an interview after the vote that he does not think SB 708 is a bad bill, but he thinks more paperwork is not productive. “We have good intentions but we continue to pile more and more paperwork and reporting procedures and administrative load on the school districts to where teachers can’t teach anymore.”

Dale Query, a retired superintendent at Flippin School District, spoke in favor of the bill. “We have found that dyslexia intervention is one of the most effective things we have every done — ” at this, supporters of the bill broke in with applause “— to bring nonreaders up to level and get them engaged in the process.”

While no other supporters of the bill testified, the committee chair asked them to stand to be recognized. About half of the people in the room stood.

Sen. Uvalde Lindsey (D-Fayetteville), who voted for the bill, said in an interview after the committee meeting had adjourned, “All of our school districts are different, and we believe strongly in local control, all of us do. It just personified itself in this particular bill. I don’t think it says anything about how we feel about dyslexia or what we need to do to combat dyslexia because it’s something that affects a lot of kids.”

Lindsey said he was hopeful SB 708 might still pass out of committee this legislative session. “We’ll come back,” he said, adding that the supporters of the bill should also “come again and fight the fight.”

On Friday, Elliott said in a phone interview that she was surprised the bill failed. “I do not know what happened. I did not have any indication that there was going to be a problem with this bill.”

Elliott said the concerns brought up in committee were worthy issues and that she would be making some changes to the bill before bringing it back to committee on Monday.

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