• Local School Districts, Not Big Government, Should Determine Reading Curriculum

    March 4, 2024

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    If you are a parent of a child in our school districts, or an educator, you are now aware of the so-called “Right to Read” law. This law was quietly passed by the majority back in 2021 as part of the state budget implementer, and on party lines—a red flag when it comes to bad policy that has negative consequences on our residents and families.

    We were informed that the purpose was to boost reading performance among K-3 public school students in parts of Connecticut. Of course, that sounds laudable. Who does not want young people to read at a high level? It is proven that literacy at a young age sets students up for success in academics and then in their professional careers. But of course, there is more to it than that.

    The question is “how do we get there?” Our unique and successful American system relies on the principles of representation and local control. Power should emanate from individual citizens and diminish as government gets farther away. Local education decisions should be just that: local and decided by a board of education elected by the people closest to them.

    That successful system is continually under assault from those driven by progressive instincts who prefer a more centralized-government approach that often puts the decision-making power in the hands of a very few, far away people, who are often not even elected or directly responsible to voters.

    This Right to Read mandate is just one example of this shift and we can see the detrimental impact particularly on small- and medium-sized well-run towns like Cheshire and Southington.

    The mandate requires each school district to implement a comprehensive reading curriculum program for grades K-3, as prescribed by the “appointed” Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE). While I appreciate innovation in teaching tools, one must question whether our state’s unelected bureaucrats truly grasp the specific needs of K-3 students in any given town.

    The 2021 law was written to allow school districts that meet or exceed the prescribed reading standards to use their own curriculum to apply for a waiver and opt out of the state curriculum mandate. In theory, this policy should be effective. I also support CSDE in developing and maintaining curriculum ideas. Underperforming districts can adopt successful models and build upon them, while overperforming districts can continue to innovate and share their ideas. This collaborative approach would benefit all stakeholders, but that is much different from a one-size-fits-all, do-as-we-say policy.

    Among the 85 waiver applications submitted, an astonishing 68 were either partially or entirely denied. This disproportionately high denial rate impacted high-performing towns, including Cheshire and Southington. Curiously, despite consistently surpassing expectations and adhering to CSDE’s “science of reading” principles since 2007, Cheshire inexplicably faced denial of their waiver.

    Currently, districts that excel in meeting their students’ needs find themselves burdened with an unfunded mandate: the compulsory purchase of CDSE’s model curriculum from external vendors. This expenditure is far from insignificant; it can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially destabilizing town budgets and constraining essential spending or leading to tax increases. How exactly does this contribute to our schools’ success?

    Last year, I wrote to the CSDE commissioner on behalf of our towns that were unjustly denied waivers, despite already surpassing K-3 reading standards. I remain frustrated about the cost, efficiency, and time for staff training that is required—all for a model curriculum that they do not need.

    More recently, I penned a letter addressed to the co-chairs of the legislature’s Education Committee, urging their support in advancing my bill proposal. This proposal aims to automatically grant waiver applications for high-performing districts. I extended the invitation to all my colleagues across party lines. While around 20 of my Republican colleagues joined me, I am disheartened that not a single Democrat lawmaker—including those from affected districts—chose to sign on.

    At this point, I have sincere doubts that the majority Democrats will use their legislative authority to solve this problem. They seem content with letting the unelected experts at CSDE decide the fate of school districts and taxpayers. I could not disagree more and will continue demanding respect and autonomy for our local elected officials, particularly when they are producing excellent results.

    In this complex landscape, we glean valuable lessons. While state mandates always appear well-intentioned, we must exercise caution and not judge solely based on intentions. My unwavering trust remains in the forces of competition, innovation, and the robust accountability inherent in our representative system.

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    Rob Sampson

    State Senator Rob Sampson represents Connecticut’s 16th State Senate District of Cheshire, Prospect, Southington, Waterbury and Wolcott.

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