Rep. Pamela Hornberger was the highest-ranking Republican lawmaker to express reservations about a GOP-led plan to flunk thousands of struggling readers. Now Hornberger has changed her mind, dealing a major blow to critics of Michigan’s controversial third-grade reading law.
On the one hand, “it tugs at your heartstrings to hear that kids are going to be retained,” said Hornberger, who chairs the house education committee. In January, she drafted a bill that would have eliminated the “read or flunk” portion of the law.
But then state researchers estimated that 5% of third-graders would likely be held back — many fewer than initial reports suggested. And Hornberger began to notice that the law was pushing schools to focus on literacy.
“It’s lit a fire under some people’s rear ends,” she said.
Add in consistent opposition from Republican lawmakers, and Hornberger says there’s little chance that her draft bill will even go to a vote.
Passed by the Michigan legislature in 2016, the third-grade reading law takes several steps to address flagging reading scores. The state ranks 35th nationwide in fourth-grade reading, down from 28th in 2003. Districts have already begun to track students’ reading skills more closely, and to raise red flags with parents when students are falling behind, both of which are required under the law.
The most controversial piece of the law won’t kick in until next summer, when as many as 5,000 third-graders will be held back because they are more than a grade behind in reading. That’s as much as a six-fold increase in retentions compared with last year.
The law has no shortage of critics, who point out that paying for an additional year of instruction is expensive, that holding students back can be emotionally damaging, and that a similar law in Florida disproportionately hurt low-income families.
Hornberger, a former art teacher, had been the highest-ranking Republican lawmaker to express misgivings about the law, which was passed by the legislature in 2016. She signaled her concern about retaining students in an April op-ed, writing that “the practice of holding students back is harmful and studies show it can be incredibly damaging for their future.”
Beth DeShone, executive director of the conservative-leaning Great Lakes Education Project, said she’s seen little evidence that other Republicans are willing to change a law that was passed when their party controlled the legislature and the governor’s mansion.
“I am finding consistent support in the legislature to maintain this law with its importance on helping struggling readers become successful leaders,” she said.
Matt Koleszar, a Democrat on the house education committee, said Hornberger “is a powerful voice on their side of the aisle.” He said her change of heart “does seem like an obstacle.”
But with the first decisions to retain students just nine months away, he said he’s not ready to give up hope.
“The conversations need to keep happening,” he said. “The clock will start ticking before we know it.”