Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee is evolving into one of this state’s most contentious programs in public education. A polarizing range of views spans the initiative to require all Ohio third-graders to attain a basic level of reading skills before advancing to fourth grade.
Ed FitzGerald, Democratic nominee for governor in this fall’s general election, says the guarantee “will end up being a disaster.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross predicts that people will look back on it as a turning point in Ohio education because it empowers children to succeed.
The truth about the guarantee’s potential likely lies somewhere in between those two extremes.
On the up side, the requirement holds hope of ending the practice of “social promotion” in which students with inadequate reading skills are advanced along in assembly-line fashion to a higher grade level unprepared for the challenges it presents. Too often, that cycle results in producing dropouts and all of the lifelong social ills that accompany that status.
On the down side, critics raise justifiable concerns about its costs, its fairness and its philosophical underpinnings.
ANOTHER UNFUNDED MANDATE
Clearly, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee does not come without a hefty price tag for weary Ohio taxpayers. Some assail it as another example of state government pushing costly programs onto local school districts without adequate resources to give it a fighting chance at success. Unlike Florida that invested $1 billion in its similar Third Grade Reading Guarantee program, Ohio doled out a very small fraction of that amount in its first year.
The largely unfunded mandate therefore will present local school administrators with a bevy of new expenses in its requirements that students held back receive at least 90 minutes of specialized reading instruction daily and ample opportunities for intervention specialists outside the classroom. Districts struggling to make ends meet in the face of decreased state support and increased voter backlash against additional local taxes face significant hurdles.
On fairness grounds, the guarantee, as currently written, fails the test of equal educational opportunities for all students that we celebrate this month on the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. The guarantee excludes students attending private schools on taxpayer-funded vouchers. But that exclusion, which essentially tells private-school students that they are undeserving of high-intensity guidance in reading, can be fixed easily. That loophole is corrected in House Bill 487, which the state Senate should adopt quickly and send to the governor for expeditious enactment.
On broader grounds, many challenge the basic premise of the program. A growing Facebook movement in Ohio, titled “Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee Is Failing Our Children,” casts doubts on whether the program will increase graduation rates. Some argue the many thousands of additional schoolchildren left behind from fourth grade will inflict a long-lasting stigma that ultimately will increase dropout rates. Others challenge the wisdom of using standardized testing as the key determinant of success or failure.
All of these questions and concerns deserve attention. State education leaders must ensure the program is fully monitored, and state legislators must ensure that it is adequately funded. Local school leaders must plan every detail of its implementation carefully and with students’ achievement first and foremost in mind. Parents, too, must play a role in working with schools and their children to maximize results.
Clearly, there will be bumps in the road during this first full year of implementation. But the program deserves a fighting chance to work as it is intended. In Florida, reading comprehension levels have increased dramatically as a direct result of the guarantee. Ohio students deserve that same shot at success.