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JOHN HOOD COLUMN: ‘Partisan’ reading bill passes easily

On March 31, the North Carolina Senate passed the hugely controversial SB 387, titled the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, by margin of 48 senators in favor, none opposed.

John Hood

The following day, the North Carolina House of Representatives took up the same SB 387, that same slapdash and extremely partisan attempt to enhance reading instruction, and voted 113-5 to approve the measure. It’s now up to Gov. Roy Cooper whether he will veto, sign or allow this highly divisive bill to become law without his signature.

I know it sounds exceedingly odd to label the Excellent Public Schools Act as anything other than a popular, noncontroversial piece of legislation. But that’s what editorialists for the Raleigh News & Observer and WRAL-TV did a few days ago. So I figured mixing their fantastic claims with actual reality would be revealing.

“Any state effort to improve reading instruction should be bipartisan,” the N&O insisted. “It should draw heavily on the advice of educators and experts in literacy.” As for WRAL, it claimed that the bill “does not appear to be the result of a focused, transparent and through examination of reading instruction in North Carolina’s schools.”

Both editorials blasted State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt for standing next to Senate leader Phil Berger at a news conference to urge the passage of SB 387, which among other things will align North Carolina’s reading curriculum with the now well-established science of reading instruction and train North Carolina’s teachers in its application. The new approach focuses on “the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”

“The science is in,” Truitt told the media. “The science of reading won the reading war. Phonics won.”

The two media outlets in question didn’t like that.

“If Catherine Truitt seeks to be seen as the state’s education leader, the route isn’t via reflexive partisan fealty,” WRAL snarled, alleging that Truitt had chosen to “take a partisan side-seat with the leadership of the General Assembly instead of standing up for the children of North Carolina and the State Constitution.”

The N&O editorial was no less dismissive. “Finding an effective way to teach reading is not a matter of back-to-basics traditionalists defeating esoteric innovators in a war over why Johnny can’t read. But that is the tone of this latest Republican-driven approach to one of the public schools’ most pressing issues: How to get more children able to read at grade level.”

Here on Planet Earth, SB 387 is a bipartisan bill enacted without significant controversy by state lawmakers of both parties, with the support not only of the Republican Catherine Truitt but also of some of Gov. Cooper’s own allies. It is based on decades of careful scholarly study of how best to teach young people to read. The strategies it endorses include “individual or small group instruction throughout the school year, reduced teacher-student ratios, frequent progress monitoring, tutoring in addition to the regular school day, reading camps, and extended learning time before or after the school day.”

The bill also includes signing and performance bonuses to encourage North Carolina’s best teachers to devote themselves to this high priority. And it will add better-trained teachers to the pipeline for future deployment both in elementary schools and in the state’s prekindergarten programs.

Will enacting the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 guarantee large and immediate increases in North Carolina’s reading scores? No, and neither Truitt nor the General Assembly has claimed otherwise. There will be other education bills enacted this session, ranging from teaching reforms and school-choice measures to a 2021-23 state budget containing significant pay raises for teachers and other school employees.

Unlike SB 387, some of these measures may truly be controversial. They may even pass on party-line votes. The state’s left-wing editorialists and columnists will complain about that, to the diminishing few who may be inclined to listen.

John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel “Mountain Folk,” a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.