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Senate panel rejects Kan. reading initiative

By JOHN MILBURN

Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- A Kansas Senate committee on Tuesday narrowly rejected Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to hold back third-graders who fail the state reading test.

The 6-5 vote means the bill remains in the Senate Education Committee, where its prospects for the remainder of the session are uncertain.

Brownback wants to bar schools from promoting third-graders to fourth grade if they fail to read at a proficient level on state tests. The bill also included a grant system for early education programs aimed at boosting reading skills.

The Republican governor was disappointed following the vote. He has made improving fourth grade reading proficiency a goal of his administration, first broaching the concept during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and later announcing the initiative during his State of the State address in January.

"It's early in the process. We'll work with legislators," Brownback said. "It's an important topic."

Opponents, including Republicans and both Democrats on the committee, questioned the bill's impact on students and the lack of parental involvement in the decision to hold students back a grade. Sen. Dan Kerschen, a freshman Republican from Garden Plain, said school districts already have the authority to retain students and that local control of the process was working well.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a teacher, said the bill was "bad public policy" and that more focus should be on the causes of poor reading scores and early learning programs.

"It makes absolutely no sense. We're making a serious mistake if we think we're going to pass this bill in this legislative session," said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Sen. Jeff Melcher, a Leawood Republican, said the cost to the state in future school years to promote a child who wasn't prepared to succeed was potentially greater than the cost of retaining the student or providing other resources.

"How many resources are wasted by allowing a non-reading fourth-grader to move on?" Melcher said.

Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican and chairman of the committee, amended the bill to allow for schools to give students a chance to take a second, alternative test to measure their reading proficiency. The move addressed concerns that the bill was too harsh and didn't take into account students who may have had extenuating circumstances that affected the outcome of the first exam.

Brownback was receptive to the idea of including a second test for students who failed the first exam to give another opportunity to advance to the fourth grade.

Abrams said it was unclear if the reading proposal would surface again this session, which ends in May. He said it was possible that the plan would be adopted by the House in some form or that it could be added to other legislation.