The Colorado READ Act, House Bill 12-1238, was signed into law Thursday by Gov. John Hickenlooper at a packed Capitol ceremony.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and students
Gov. John Hickenlooper was flanked by second graders from Aurora's Kenton Elementary as he signed the Colorado READ Act on May 17, 2012.
“This is legislation that really does put kids first,” Hickenlooper told a crowd of officials, lawmakers, lobbyists and educators in the Capitol’s west foyer.

“It’s really a great day for young people in Colorado,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the administration’s point man on education. “”But we’re not done. We have a long way to go.”

The law, nearly a year in the making, is the most significant piece of education legislation to emerge from the just-completed 2012 regular session. It also has the distinction of being one of the few recent Colorado education reform laws to come with significant funding.

Several speakers at the signing ceremony referred to the long process it took to get to the final product.

“It certainly takes a village to write a bill to help raise a child,” joked Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a prime sponsor of the bill.

Here are the key features of the READ Act:

• Next school year districts will report to the Department of Education the number of K-3 students with significant reading deficiencies. The State Board of Education the will define what constitutes a significant reading deficiency for the purposes of the law. SBE has until March 31, 2013, to adopt the rules for the new program.

• The law is expected to cover up to 24,000 students. An estimated quarter of Colorado third graders don’t read at grade level.

• Starting in 2013-14 districts will annually assess K-3 students’ reading abilities with CDE-approved tests. The department is required to create a list of approved instructional programs and professional development programs that districts can use.

• Individual READ plans have to be created for students with significant deficiencies. The law also creates a process for parent, teacher and administrator consultation to determine each year if students should advance to the next grade. Parents have the final say for K-2 students. Superintendents (or designated administrators) will review the cases of third graders recommended for advancement and can decide to retain a student. Special services must be provided for third graders who are held back.

• The law contains protections and exemptions for students with disabilities, limited English proficiency or who have already been retained.

• The program will divert interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The law also includes some $5 million in funding to be used for CDE administration costs ($1 million) and for professional development grants to districts. So total funding in 2012-13 will be about $21 million.

• Districts receiving the per-pupil funding will be required to use specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school or tutoring.

• The law abolishes the existing Read-to-Achieve grant program and uses its remaining funding for the new grant program.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs / File photo
The idea for the law originated last year with a coalition of business and education reform groups working with Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and outgoing chair of the House Education Committee. Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, was Massey’s co-prime sponsors.

The original concept called for mandatory retention of lagging third graders, but that plan was quickly dropped in the face of widespread opposition.

As passed by the House, HB 12-1238 had a “preference” for retention, contained only $5 million in funding and also would have required services for a second group of students, those with just “reading deficiencies.”

Low funding and some of the bill’s language didn’t sit well with Senate Democratic leaders, and the bill was significantly amended. More funding was added, the bill was refocused on a smaller group of students, some of the more detailed requirements for parent consultation and notification were streamlined and retention language was softened.

Democratic Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder and Bob Bacon of Fort Collins were key figures in crafting the Senate compromise, in consultation with Massey.

Several speakers at the ceremony highlighted Heath’s role in the bill. Garcia said Heath “reall helped keep us on track … and come up with a bill we all could fully support.”

The Senate sponsors were Johnston and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial. Hickenlooper advisors also were heavily involved with the READ Act from the beginning.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
A few lawmakers, led by Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, were skeptical of the bill, arguing that the money would be better spent to expand state preschool programs and full-day kindergarten. But the bill had lots of momentum after the Senate passed it 35-0. The House accepted the Senate version and re-passed the measure 58-7 on the last day of the regular session.

The READ Act is the swansong for some lawmakers who have been key players on education legislation for years. Massey, Bacon, Spence and Solano all are leaving the Capitol because of term limits.