Phil Berger’s unlikely ally in the fight to boost reading

State Senate leader Phil Berger held a news conference last week to announce changes in his plan to improve student reading levels, but the real news was the man he invited to join him, J.B. Buxton, a member of the State Board of Education.

Buxton, a Democrat, is a former deputy superintendent of education and was an education adviser to Gov. Mike Easley. That resume puts him in the camp of Democratic ideas about how to improve public schools and well outside the circle of Berger and other Republicans, who dismiss the Democratic approach as a lot of spending with poor results.

When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper nominated Buxton for the State Board of Education in June 2018, Berger supported a vote by Republican lawmakers that rejected Buxton’s appointment. Cooper got his man on the board four months later by naming Buxton to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of former board chairman Bill Cobey, a move that did not require legislative approval.

Given that history, it was surprising to see Buxton joining Berger to discuss a bill that will modify the Read to Achieve program, which Berger launched with legislation in 2012.

“It was maybe a strange sight for some folks.” Buxton said. “But it’s only strange if you hadn’t been in the middle of the discussion.”

Berger’s spokesman Pat Ryan said Buxton’s help has been welcomed as Berger tries to rescue a Read to Achieve program that, despite $150 million in state spending, has resulted in the state’s average third-grade reading scores declining instead of improving.

“J.B. Buxton has been very helpful as we’ve formulated this bill, and Senator Berger appreciates his insights, perspective and assistance,” Ryan said. “Whatever differences there may have been are in the past. Senator Berger is happy to collaborate with Mr. Buxton in the interest of doing what’s best to improve outcomes for our students.”

The original Read To Achieve legislation sought to end the “social promotion” of children who were not proficient readers by the end of third grade. It offered summer reading camps for students who needed to improve in order to advance, but there were issues about how to best measure reading proficiency and the challenges of holding back too many students.

The proposed changes in Read to Achieve would extend the push for reading improvement to students after first and second grade. Buxton said intervention to help lagging readers “needs to be be much further downstream.”

The bill also tries to improve teacher training regarding early reading skills and seeks to bring veteran teachers into the reading camps by offering $2,000 to retired educators who come back to work for the summer.

Berger may finally be seeing that, at least in matters of education, people with experience in the field can help develop better legislation. Buxton said of the Senate leader, “I think he wants to get this right and I think (improving reading) is a place where we can all work together.”

Notably, the changes do not include substantial new funding, but Buxton said the tight-fisted Senate leader may yet put more money behind the goal of improving students’ reading levels. Currently, only 56 percent of students after third grade are considered proficient readers.

“I was pleased to hear Sen. Berger say this was a policy bill, but they are willing to consider appropriations,” Buxton said.

There’s a lot still to be done — especially in school funding. Berger, for instance, is pushing better reading at a time when inadequate state funding has left most schools woefully short of books. Nonetheless, Berger working with Buxton is a promising start.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com