Read by 3 program is pricey, but it will pay big dividends

Gov. Brian Sandoval dropped by the Review-Journal last week for a wide-ranging discussion that eventually turned to education.

I asked him about his “Read by 3” initiative, a proposal that aims to make sure all students are proficient in reading by third grade, or they’re automatically held back. The governor said he’s going to make it a priority in the next session of the Legislature.

Research supports the idea that if a student isn’t reading by grade level in the third grade, it’s easy to fall hopelessly behind, eventually dropping out or failing to pass standardized tests required to get a diploma. That costs a child — economically as well as intellectually — for the rest of his or her life.

“We’ve got to hit it early,” the governor said, challenging me to use this platform to help him get it done.

Well, OK, governor: Here goes:

A bill to implement Read by 3 was introduced in the 2013 Legislature by the Assembly Education Committee, headed up by Assemblyman Elliot Anderson. It gathered a good deal of bipartisan support during a joint Senate-Assembly Education Committee meeting, and only one person in the whole state testified tentatively against it. (Even he acknowledged a suggested change would help him warm up to the measure.)

In addition to the don’t pass/don’t advance provision, the bill created a special Task Force on Reading Proficiency in the state Education Department, which would set the passing score for the reading test; ordered schools to provide written notice to parents in kindergarten, first, second and third grade if a student isn’t performing up to standards; required a special academic plan be developed for struggling students; provided some “good cause exemptions” for students who don’t pass the test; required summer school focused on reading skills; and outlined an intensive reading instruction program for students who are held back.

Now personally, I think some of the “good cause exemptions” in the bill were too liberal: One would allow a student with a “portfolio of work” that demonstrates proficiency to advance to fourth grade, even if he or she didn’t make a passing score on the test. But overall, Nevada needs this kind of program, and the accountability that comes with it, for teachers, students, schools and, yes, parents.

In fact, if I had a magic wand and could change just one thing about Nevada education, I’d waive it to get parents more involved. I know I learned to read because my mom — a long-serving kindergarten teacher herself — taught me (using traditional phonics), and read to me at night from the Hardy Boys detective novels. They were so compelling to a young mind, I couldn’t wait until I could read them on my own, and that propelled me to apply myself. Would that every student had a similar experience.

So with virtually no opposition, support from lawmakers of both parties, and backing from school districts, administrators, teachers unions and UNLV education professors, what happened? Why did the bill — which passed the Assembly Education Committee, die in the Ways &Means Committee after a single hearing? If you guessed “money,” you’re right. The state Education Department said it would cost $14.7 million to implement in the first two-year budget, while the Clark County School District said it would need $58.3 million in the first fiscal year, and $42 million in the second. (That money would be used to implement the test, buy computers, hire literacy specialists and additional teachers, among other things.) Other districts estimated significant costs, too.

That’s a big ask, especially given the entire budget for education for the state over the most recent two-year cycle is $3.8 billion, or about 20 percent of state spending. But if we’re going to demand better performance from students and teachers, we have to pay for the training, especially English-language training, required to make sure they succeed. The governor says he’s going to make Read by 3 a priority; the Legislature should follow suit by finding the dollars necessary — within the existing state budget, if necessary — to make it work.

It will pay dividends for students, and for the state. As the governor said, we’ve got to hit it early.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or