LINCOLN — An Omaha state senator's proposal to hold back third-graders who struggle with reading won points for passion Tuesday.
But most testifiers at a public hearing panned Legislative Bill 952. Opponents ranged from Nebraska's top education official to a trio of Omaha-area mothers.
State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt led off the opponents.
He said the bill puts forth several ideas worthy of discussion. He cited its focus on learning reading in the early grades and the concept of grading schools on performance and publicizing those grades.
But Blomstedt raised concerns about how the bill fits with the State Board of Education's existing efforts to increase school accountability and improve student learning.
“I think the passion behind the bill is completely appropriate,” he said. “The devil is always in the details.”
The bill's sponsor, State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, acknowledged that the proposal incorporates what some may see as threatening ideas.
However, he urged the Education Committee to be willing to act on those ideas for the sake of Nebraska children.
“What happens when we delay education reform?” Lautenbaugh asked. “How many students do we fail every year that we engage in a 'good conversation?' ”
He said the bill is necessary because Nebraska schools — especially the Omaha Public Schools — have a “history of failure,” especially with minority students.
“It's intolerable,” Lautenbaugh said of the situation at OPS.
His concerns about student achievement prompted passage of a law last year that shrunk the OPS board. He also has introduced bills to allow charter schools in the Omaha area.
LB 952 would require that schools hold back third-graders who cannot read at grade level.
Under the bill, students could be retained for no more than two years and some students, including those with disabilities or who are learning English, would be exempted.
Reading ability would be measured by state-approved tests given in kindergarten, first, second and third grade. Schools would have to make individual plans for students who lag their grade level, and those kept back in third grade would have to get intensive reading instruction.
Gina Miller, an Omaha mother, said the bill looks good on the surface. But she objected to having the state mandate when a child should be held back, rather than having the decision made at the local level with parental involvement.
She also urged lawmakers against subjecting children to more high-pressure testing.
“We need to start educating and stop counting,” Miller said.
Another Omaha mother, Katrina Burton, opposed the provision that intensive reading classes include contracts requiring parents to attend training workshops and read to their children at home.
She said those amount to government intrusion in family life.
In the proponents column was Bob Evnen of Lincoln, a former State Board of Education member.
He said he supports the bill, at least in concept. He said social promotion, the practice of advancing students based on age rather than achievement, has been a long-standing problem in education.
However, Evnen said he generally believes that the state should set academic standards and let local districts decide about programs to help students meet those standards.
Lautenbaugh said he based LB 952 on a package of educational changes made in Florida, which he said have led to big improvements in student achievement scores.
Other provisions in LB 952 would:
» Require each public school to get a grade based on student achievement and improvement on state tests. The grades would be provided to parents and posted on the Internet.
» Create new avenues for people to become certified as teachers, including those who have not had teacher education.
» Provide additional funds to schools with high grades. The money would have to be spent for faculty and staff bonuses or for equipment to improve student performance.
» Require that principals approve all teachers transferring into their buildings.
The Education Committee took no immediate action on the measure.
Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a committee member, said the bill presents a “large buffet of ideas.”
Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha noted that the bill was introduced at a time when OPS has a new superintendent, the state has a new education commissioner and lawmakers plan to undertake a comprehensive look at the state's educational priorities.