Otter’s $10.7 million literacy initiative: a closer look

Gov. Butch Otter is asking Idaho lawmakers to make a $10.7 million commitment to improving elementary school reading skills.

Butch Otter
Gov. Butch Otter

Otter’s literacy proposal would provide support and interventions for kindergarten through third-grade students who do not reach grade-level benchmark scores on the Idaho Reading Indicator. The program aligns with a recommendation from Otter’s education task force, calling for students to “demonstrate mastery of literacy before moving on to significant content learning.”

Lawmakers and several educators offered early praise for Otter’s initiative, which would mark the first step in an ongoing effort. At least one lawmaker is questioning the idea of using money to expand kindergarten.

The proposal — and the problem

Otter unveiled the initiative during his Jan. 11 State of the State Address.

“Let me impress upon you once again the urgent need to address the cornerstone of successful lifelong learning — reading proficiency,” Otter said. “If we’re serious about wanting long-term improvement in school outcomes, we must intensify our efforts to provide the kind of proven support that works for students who struggle to develop reading skills.”

Districts could use the $10.7 million to launch an optional, all-day kindergarten program for students who post the lowest scores on the IRI. Funding would also be available to provide 20 hours of intervention (extra time with a reading specialist, before- or after-school sessions or summer reading programs, for example) for students who score below grade-level benchmarks.

Last fall, 63.9 percent of Idaho third-graders earned grade-level scores on the IRI. Almost 14.8 percent of third-graders scored at the lowest level. Meanwhile, 21 percent of kindergartners (4,361 students) scored at the lowest level on the IRI.

Another tool, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) painted a different picture of elementary school reading proficiency. NAEP does not track K-3 scores, but data show that just 36 percent of Idaho’s fourth-grade students were reading at or above proficiency levels in 2013.

Marilyn Whitney, Otter’s senior special assistant for education and government services, said school district leaders would be given some flexibility with the money, as long as it is directed toward struggling readers in grades K-3.

“What the governor wants is to make sure the money will be used for proven methods that get results,” Whitney said.

Superintendents welcome emphasis on literacy

Chuck Shackett portrait
Chuck Shackett

Bonneville Superintendent Chuck Shackett said about 10 to 15 percent of the students in his Eastern Idaho district fall short of grade-level benchmarks on the IRI. Shackett loves the idea of extra state support to help struggling readers and has several ideas for the funding.

Bonneville students have responded positively to a Narrative Writing program the district uses. The district could also use the money for professional development under its specialist program. Shackett would also consider reestablishing all-day kindergarten at select locations.

“Any extra money for that targeted group of kids is really a blessing,” Shackett said. “We are always struggling to meet that population’s needs and fill that gap.”

Boise district Superintendent Don Coberly also supports the emphasis on early literacy and would appreciate funding to expand many of the district’s supplemental reading programs.

Don Coberly square
Don Coberly

“We’re really pleased to see the governor wants to devote more funding to remediation,” Coberly said. “That’s probably what we would do is expand programs we have available now.”

This school year, the district and city leaders partnered to launch a preschool program in two Boise schools. Coberly is encouraged by the partnership and believes preschool graduates will post higher reading scores when they enter kindergarten. If that plays out, Coberly thinks lawmakers need to seriously consider a state preschool program, which he believes could sharply reduce the need for elementary school remediation.

“We’re confident it’s going to be a success,” he said.

What other politicians are saying

VanOrden New
Rep. Julie VanOrden

House Education Committee Vice Chair Julie VanOrden, R-Pingree, said Otter’s proposal aligns perfectly with literacy recommendations developed over the past two years by a subcommittee of his education task force.

“It’s a big priority for me because every year we don’t do something there are students who are falling behind in reading,” VanOrden said.

House Education Committee member Patrick McDonald also applauded Otter’s initiative.

“He’s right on the money,” said McDonald, R-Boise. “As well versed as the governor is on some of these issues, I have got every confidence he going to stay right on target.”

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Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth

Rep. Ryan Kerby gave the plan mixed reviews. His main concern: funding for full-day kindergarten may provides an incentive for students to perform worse on the IRI, ultimately driving up program costs.

“I prefer to see money in that arena determined based on poverty levels,” Kerby said. “Otherwise we have a disincentive for kids to get good scores.”

Kerby said parental involvement and support would be key to boosting literacy rates. The former New Plymouth school superintendent said his district achieved positive results by testing students the spring before they entered kindergarten and then offering summer school to those students with low scores.

As for Otter’s plan, he said he could support it, with some tweaks.

“Really, we have an education governor who is really trying to do the right thing,” he said.

The literacy plan represents one difference between Otter’s K-12 budget and state superintendent Sherri Ybarra’s proposal. Ybarra’s budget, released in September, called for dedicating $5 million to a literacy program. Ybarra will discuss her budget in detail Thursday, in a presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.