DENVER (AP) – A children’s literacy bill aimed at making sure all Colorado pupils read by fourth grade passed a big test in the state Senate on Wednesday, but not before senators took a red pen to parts of the measure to address complaints it was too ham-fisted toward struggling young readers.

A Senate committee approved the bill 4-1 after changing it to address how the change would be funded and who decides whether pupils flunk a grade.

As proposed, the measure would have required students far behind on reading skills by the end of third grade to be held back without a superintendent’s permission. The measure was changed to require parents of those students to hear a discussion about retention, but not mandate flunking.

The bill was also changed to designate some $16 million designated for “interventions” for poor readers. Some education groups had complained that the literacy measure required pricey policy changes without giving schools money to pay for them, a complaint that has dogged previous attempts to raise reading performance.

Republican Sen. Nancy Spence, one of the Senate sponsors of the measure, supported the changes because she said failure wasn’t an option for a new tactic in reading education.

“We could fill the Pepsi Center every year with students who can’t read and are on track to drop out of school,” Spence said, rattling of state assessment statistics that more than a fourth of Colorado’s third-graders aren’t reading at grade level.

The changes were praised by educators, who said they were more comfortable with the new version.

“There’s been much progress on this legislation,” said Elliott Asp of the Cherry Creek School District. He praised the retention change and lauded new language on how to pay for the measure.

“We know that the lack of funding truly is a major barrier to affecting early literacy,” he said.

Not everyone was sold. Some groups and teachers repeated their earlier arguments that Colorado would be better off spending the money expanding pre-kindergarten classes and funding full-day kindergarten.

Democratic Sen. Michael Johnston, another sponsor of the measure, said Colorado simply doesn’t have the money to fund those ideas right now.

The bill already passed the House and has the support of Gov. John Hickenlooper. The literacy measure now awaits action by another Senate committee before it heads to the full Senate.

Many states are looking at get-tough proposals to make sure students can read by fourth grade. Education advocacy groups including the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation have said reading by fourth grade is crucial for young learners.

As introduced, Colorado’s proposal would require that the poorest readers be identified as soon as kindergarten and identified for grade retention. The worst readers would receive extra help called “intervention,” and for those still in the lowest category by the end of third grade, the state would recommend flunking.

The grade-retention proposal raised alarm from some parents and school districts that the state would override local decisions on grade retention, and that holding kids back a grade can help some but backfire for others. Senators working on the bill Wednesday seemed interested in assuaging those concerns while keeping the spirit of the bill.

A former state school board member, Peggy Littleton of El Paso County, testified that it’s past time for Colorado to recast its approach to early reading.

“We’ve already thrown money at literacy. Lots of money at literacy. How’s that working out for us?” Littleton asked sarcastically.

LINK: House Bill 1238

– By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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