Excellent Public Schools Act 2021 heads to governor’s desk

Bill focuses on literacy and the science of reading, updates state’s Read to Achieve program

Gov. Roy Cooper speaks during a tour of Piedmont Health Senior Care, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021 in Pittsboro. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — North Carolina lawmakers have quickly passed an education bill that has a focus on K-12 literacy and how the state teaches reading. The bill was sent to Gov. Roy Cooper for his signature on April 1.

Senate Bill 387, titled the Excellent Public Schools Act, was introduced at a March 29 press conference held by Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden), Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) and Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover). Also in attendance was state Superintendent Catherine Truitt. 

“In this bill you are going to see a lot about what’s called the science of reading,” said Berger at the press conference. “For those of you who may not know, the science of reading is evidence-based reading instruction, practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”

Within days of the bill’s introduction, the Senate unanimously passed the measure. On April 1, the House passed the bill by a wide margin of 113-5. The five members who voted no were all Democrats — Reps. Alston, Autry, Insko, Martin and Meyer. 

“Early literacy is a major determining factor of a child’s future success, so we have to get this right. After extensive learning loss for hundreds of thousands of children during the last year of school closures, it is critical we put our politics aside so we can finally enact improvements to early childhood literacy,” said Berger in a press release following the bill’s passage. “I’m pleased to see the Senate come together to support our students.”

The 14-page bill is divided into multiple parts and draws from a 2019 bill with the same name passed with bipartisan support in the House and unanimous support in the Senate. The 2019 bill was vetoed by Cooper, whose veto message said the Read to Achieve program was “ineffective and costly,” and that the bill tried to “put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

The Read to Achieve program was launched in 2013 with the intention of ensuring all third-grade students were proficient in reading before being promoted to the next grade. 

Berger did address Read to Achieve and the veto of the 2019 Excellent Public Schools Act during the bill’s unveiling press conference.

“With the extensive learning loss suffered by hundreds of thousands of children during the last year of school closures, I am hopeful politics will be set aside so critical improvements to the early childhood literacy curriculum can finally be enacted,” said Berger. He added that Read to Achieve is “working well in some places and needs adjustments in other.”

The current bill expands the definition for the Read to Achieve summer reading camps for third graders to include any second or first grader demonstrating difficulty with reading development. The summer camps are not mandatory and parents make the final decision on attendance.

Bonuses will also be offered to teachers in relation to the summer reading programs. Districts will be directed to provide a signing bonus of at least $1,200 to teachers with high growth in reading based on EVAAS data and who have awarded a reading performance bonus by NCDPI for that school year. A second bonus of at least $150 per student will be assigned to that teacher in a third-grade reading camp.

“We didn’t really have to reinvent the wheel after Gov. Cooper’s veto, some of the details of the 2019 bill were implemented through administrative action by DPI and with the State Board of Education,” Ballard said, adding that one of those initiatives was forming a literacy task force.

Ballard said the literacy task force provided them with recommendations including the areas of professional development and teacher training in the science of reading, which will begin in 2022.

“It’s critical that we get these efforts underway to help students who have fallen further behind during the pandemic,” said Ballard.

Elementary school teacher licensing will include three continuing education credits related to literacy which are grounded in the science of reading. The bill provides $12 million to NCDPI to contract with Voyager Sopris Learning, Inc. for specific training for Pre-K and elementary school teachers.

The State Board of Education is directed to develop a literacy plan and to create literacy instruction standards for elementary teachers as well as coursework in the science of reading.  The deadline for these requirements is not until mid-December of 2022. 

The bill also directs the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) to create an early literacy program focusing on foundational early literacy skills using the science of reading for children enrolled in Pre-K programs. Additionally, the bill creates an “Individual Reading Plan” or IRP for K-3 students displaying difficulty with reading that will identify and implement support strategies and interventions aligned to the science of reading.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said she was “so excited to see this legislation” and that literacy was a “guiding force” behind why she wanted to run for the position.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” said Truitt. “And we know already that a slide will have occurred post-COVID — we’ve seen it already with our early third grade data.”

Prior to the pandemic, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2019 report said three in 10 children entering fourth grade were unable to read on grade level. Additionally, only 36% of North Carolina students scored at or above a fourth-grade reading level in 2019.

An NCDPI survey of the state’s districts earlier this year revealed almost 23% of public school students and just over 9% of public charter schools students are at-risk for academic failure the current school year.

About A.P. Dillon 443 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_