Hoping for a ‘Mississippi miracle’ Alaska lawmakers push bipartisan reading bill

a student in a classroom
A student in a classroom at Redington Sr. Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla on Sept. 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s kids have some of the worst reading scores in the country. 

Historically, other states such as Mississippi have kept Alaska company at the bottom of national rankings on fourth grade reading ability. 

But, while Alaska has remained at the bottom, sinking to last place in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mississippi’s students have soared — from 49th place in 2013 to 29th place in 2019.

It’s a success story that caught Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes’ attention. And she thinks what worked in Mississippi could work in Alaska, too.

“By golly, we’ve watched states that were down at the bottom of the pile with us shoot up to the top. At this point, I think even somebody who might be somewhat skeptical is like, ‘Well, what we’re doing isn’t working, we might as well try this’,” said Hughes.

Senate Bill 111 would intensify interventions for students identified as struggling readers by the time they finish third grade, using help from the state education department to create individual reading plans. It would also require Alaska’s kindergarten through third grade teachers to be trained in reading science. 

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Alaskans are sometimes leery of models or initiatives that come from other places but Hughes said she hasn’t heard that criticism when it comes her reading bill. Hughes said she’s confident these tactics will be successful.

“The literacy piece is working very well in other states. And my hope was that rather than a trial and error, that we would take some of the learned lessons from other states and apply them.”

Another part of the bill builds on legislation Democratic Sen. Tom Begich worked on last year with Governor Mike Dunleavy and the state department of education enhancing pre-K options in the state. 

Begich said Alaska’s reading problems stem from a lack of support for early education. 

“We have a fairly disparate system. We don’t have a clear policy for preparing our kids to come to school to learn, which is what early education does. We have inconsistent pre-K policy around the state at the local level,” Begich said. “And part of the reason for that is we haven’t been able to fund pre-K.”

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The bill would include money for pre-K students in districts that meet state-defined standards for pre-K programs. And it would provide grant funding for districts without approved pre-K programs to improve or create them.

The reading bill presented by Begich and Dunleavy last year was estimated to cost around $91.5 million over six years. But the bill never made it through the house — in part, because of the pandemic. 

This year’s bill is currently in the Senate Finance Committee. There’s a similar companion bill moving through the House, which Begich said may help grease the wheels on the bill’s way toward becoming law later this year. 

“It’s a priority for the Senate Majority and it’s a priority for the House Majority to move strong education legislation through. So I believe it has a strong chance of passage,” Begich said.