Need for a Reading Initiative
It was generally recognized that student reading achievement was not as high as it should be in Utah and needed to be addressed. Governor Leavitt and Lt. Governor Walker established the improvement of student reading achievement as a top priority for the 1999 legislative session. National reports that reading levels were declining in America were emerging and most people agreed that student success in reading was an essential priority (National Endowment For The Arts Announces New Reading Study http://www.nea.gov/news/news07/trnr.html, Address Utah’s Reading Woes http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19981120b.pdf). The state responded with reading initiatives. Other states, like Texas, had moved aggressively with reading programs and had seen some improvement in reading levels, so public education officials were confident that reading initiatives would be successful in Utah as well. Governor Leavitt proposed eight million dollars to fund reading improvement in elementary schools in Utah. Schools receiving this additional state funding would be required to develop a school wide reading improvement plan and specify how they would utilize this additional state funding to improve reading achievement in their school.
Lieutenant Governor Walker was extremely supportive and involved in the reading initiative. The reading initiative became the centerpiece for the Governor’s public education proposals for the 1999 legislative session (Teachers Told: Get Kids Reading; Program Also Counts On Contributions From Parents, Community Volunteers and Libraries; Reading Program Unveiled For Teachers http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980717b.pdf). Representative Jeff Alexander was asked to sponsor the bill in the legislature. The public education community was very supportive of this initiative and fully supported the Governor’s legislative proposal. The development and planning of the actual legislation included input from the public education community and research regarding other similar legislation across the country. Academic research on reading achievement was also included in the preparation for the proposed legislation.
As the legislative session was approaching an end, however, only three weeks remained and the reading bill had still not been introduced. The Governor’s staff and supportive members of the public education community worked with Representative Alexander, but there was a lack of consensus regarding several provisions of the bill. It was reported that some legislators were hesitant to support the legislation because they did not feel a reading initiative was necessary if schools would simply perform at a level that was expected. Some legislators argued that additional funds were unnecessary where teachers were already being paid to help students master reading. Another important issue to be resolved was that of school accountability for student achievement. Again, some legislators felt that teachers should be held accountable to teach reading, and if they were not already successful, no additional funding would ensure improvement. Such doubts and criticisms seemed to fuel questions of school effectiveness and accountability generally. These issues and other questions about funding became significant concerns for many legislators (Public Education Reforms Are Just ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20000402.pdf).
Conflict and Resolution
Governor Leavitt was very eager to pass the reading initiative bill, so he organized a special meeting with several legislators. He asked Gary Carlston, his Deputy for Education, to invite Representative Alexander, Lt. Governor Walker, Representative Sheryl Allen, and Gary Doxey, legal advisor to the governor to a meeting to discuss the matter. This small working group met in the Governor’s outer office to discuss the bill. The discussion was polite, but little progress was being made during the early stages of that meeting.
The meeting suddenly became tenser as Representative Alexander pointedly stated that the reason the reading bill had not been introduced was because Dr. Carlston had not been willing to discuss school accountability. Dr. Carlston was shocked that Representative Alexander accused him of blocking discussion of school accountability and being the primary cause for the delay in creating the reading bill. The room was silent for approximately 20 seconds, and the discussion resumed with no further mention of Representative Alexander’s remarks about Dr. Carlston. After several minutes, the Governor turned to Representative Alexander and sarcastically said, “Since you’re the smartest man in the world, why don’t you go upstairs and you work it out.” The meeting ended abruptly after this tense exchange.
Governor Leavitt fully supported Dr. Carlston and they promptly returned to the drawing board to discuss how they could return the focus to the bill. Dr. Carlston and Representative Alexander spoke again, worked out their disagreements, and discussed how to get the bill introduced and approved.
Passing the Reading Initiative
Legislators, particularly Representative Alexander, wanted to build into the bill more freedom regarding the manner schools would use the reading funds. A classic policy struggle regarding local control vs. state mandated directives became the final hurdle to overcome. Early drafts of the bill called for schools to develop school reading plans specifying how those plans were to be developed before funds would be appropriated to them to the schools. A compromise was reached and the $8 million originally requested was cut to $5 million, and the legislation provided schools flexibility on the development of reading plans and how the funds would be spent. This legislation, however, led to additional funding support from the legislature at the request of Governor Walker.
The principal issue that emerged from the reading legislation process was not funding for reading, but rather school accountability, which is an important lesson about policy development (Office of the Governor: 2000 Legislative Accomplishments; Invest More, Expect More http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/LG/ms122LG20000317.pdf). While the executive branch was focused on improving reading achievement in elementary schools, many legislators seized on the opportunity to push an agenda school accountability. Other states had enacted school accountability laws requiring student examinations and public reporting. A direct result of the wrangling over the reading initiative was the formation of a legislative school accountability task force. The following legislative session, the legislature enacted U-PASS, Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (Accountability for Utah Schools http://www.schools.utah.gov/main/DATA-STATISTICS/Accountability/Accountability-Reports.aspx), which was endorsed by the Governor. As it turned out, the timing of the reading bill and passage of U-PASS was impeccable because both these initiatives prepared Utah for easy implementation of No Child Left Behind, which was initiated just one year later.