NC Gov. Cooper vetoes Read To Achieve bill, calling the program an expensive failure

Gov. Roy Cooper called the Read To Achieve program ineffective, costly and a failure on Friday as he vetoed a bill some legislators said would fix it.

State lawmakers had passed the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019, which includes changes to address shortcomings in a program designed to get North Carolina’s children reading at grade level by the end of third-grade. Despite spending at least $150 million since 2012, the state has seen reading scores in third grade decline.

“Teaching children to read well is a critical goal for their future success, but recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly,” Cooper said in a statement Friday. “A contract dispute over the assessment tool adds to uncertainty for educators and parents. This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

Cooper was referring to the ongoing controversy over the new state contract to use the Istation program to test students’ reading skills as part of Read To Achieve. Amplify Education received a temporary stay on Monday against the awarding of the new three-year, $8.3 million contract.

Read To Achieve is the signature education legislation for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, who denounced the veto.

“The Governor’s own administration helped write this bill because helping kids learn to read wasn’t a partisan issue – until now,” Bill D’Elia, a spokesman for Berger, said in a statement. “The real reason Governor Cooper blocked this early childhood reading program is because of the name of the bill sponsor: Phil Berger.

“Blocking a kids reading program written in part by his own appointees is a clear failure of leadership from Governor Cooper and another black eye for an administration floundering in its attempt to govern our state, the statement continued.

3rd veto this week

This is Cooper’s third legislative veto this week. He also vetoed bills making it easier for billboard companies to move and upgrade their signs and requiring sheriffs’ to comply with certain requests from federal immigration agents.

Republican lawmakers have not been able to override any of the Democratic governor’s vetoes since losing super-majorities in last fall’s elections.

The General Assembly passed Read to Achieve legislation in 2012. It was modeled on literacy efforts in other states, including the “Just Read, Florida!” program created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. The goal in North Carolina was to end “social promotion” by keeping students in third grade until they could read at grade level and providing extra support to help them get there, as The News & Observer previously reported.

The state has spent at least $151.7 million on Read To Achieve, much of it for digital devices for elementary schools and summer camps to help young readers who fall behind, as the N&O previously reported.

The passing rate on the state’s third-grade reading exams dropped from 60.2% in the 2013-14 school year to 55.9% in the 2017-18 school year. Results from the most recent school year will be released in early September.

The changes under Senate Bill 438 include:

K-3 teachers developing individual reading plans for students who are not reading at grade level;

The state Department of Public Instruction developing a Digital Children’s Reading Initiative so parents can find resources online to help their children read;

DPI developing a model curriculum, based on what some districts say is working, that can be used statewide;

Revising training standards for teachers to promote early childhood literacy;

Requiring school districts to get approval from DPI for their summer reading camp plans.

Berger’s office noted how State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton, who was appointed by Cooper, had helped write the bill and spoken in favor of the legislation at an April news conference.

House Democrats tacked on language that would have allowed school districts to use alternatives to Istation for testing students. Senate Republicans rejected the change.

A group of Republican lawmakers worked out a revised bill that dropped the wording on using Istation alternatives. The revised bill easily passed in the Senate but not with enough votes in the House to override a veto.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.