Osmond's bill is one of many aimed at expanding early-intervention programs in the state to provide young students their best chance for success. In recent years, the importance of literacy and numeracy in the elementary grade levels has received a swell of attention at both locally and nationally.
Reading by third grade
Included in the goals of Prosperity 2020 – a statewide private-public partnership to improve education outcomes in the state – is a call for 90 percent of third-graders to become proficient in mathematics and language arts. Currently, 79 percent of third-graders score at the proficient level in language arts and 76 percent are proficient in math.
To achieve that goal, Prosperity 2020 has worked with the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and state education officials to request targeted funding for the expansion of early intervention and at-risk education programs. Prosperity 2020 has also pledged to place 20,200 volunteers in schools through its business partners.
Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, has proposed a bill to implement a system where elementary teachers would be trained in identifying warning signs for dyslexia and would then refer students to a district specialist. Knotwell said the bill is still being drafted and it is not yet clear how much a statewide dyslexia screening program would cost, but the idea is to identify struggling students early and get them the help they need.
"We're trying to get kids to read by the third grade," he said. "One of the barriers is if they don't have the confidence because they literally can't see the letters."
Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, aims to amend the K-3 reading improvement program to focus funding toward initiatives that will result in increased proficiency scores. Stephenson recently met with school board members, teachers, education officials and other individuals "keenly interested in advancing reading" to receive their feedback on how the roughly $30 million in annual reading improvement funds could be better spent.
"Everyone I talk to agrees that we need improvement drastically, what we're currently achieving is not sufficient," he said. "We have to overcome that. We have a moral imperative to get every kid reading by the third grade."
He said one strategy that shows promise is the use of early intervention software programs that help individualize education for kindergarten and first-graders. The state recently went through a request for proposal process and is currently rolling out a number of software options at schools with a high number of low-income students and English language learners.
Stephenson was still drafting the specifics of his bill, but said the major takeaway he has received from meeting with educators is the need for local schools to have more flexibility in using their reading improvement money.
"Sometimes we paint them into a box," he said of legislation. "In trying to do good we inadvertently take away choices. We need to relax a lot of those restrictions and not force them to put a square peg into a round hole."
Money and class size
But new programs, and the fine-tuning of existing programs, require funding to employ and train the personnel behind them and purchase necessary resources. Utah currently spends the least per-pupil of any state in the country and according to the most recent data by Prosperity 2020, the state ranks 29th for public education spending as a percentage of personal income.
The state is also among the highest in terms of class size. The median size for a sixth grade class in Utah is 27 students. For a high school geometry class, it's 31 students.
Dabakis said that over the years there has been a lot of "shenanigans" when it comes to education funding. He said Herbert and members of the Legislature have applauded themselves for providing funding for growth in education, but schools continue to face mounting costs.
"There's a whole group of expenses that are not included in growth," he said. "When you're 51st in funding, I think the status quo isn't good enough."
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