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New reading requirements could cost schools millions

It could potentially cost Miami Valley school districts millions of dollars annually to meet the requirements of the new state Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

School districts and charter schools throughout Ohio began taking steps this school year to prepare for the standard that generally mandates that students who do not demonstrate proficiency on the third-grade reading Ohio Achievement Assessments in 2013-14 could be retained.

A newspaper analysis based on 2010-11 Ohio Department of Education data found that a sampling of 34 area school districts could collectively spend nearly $20 million annually to meet the mandate. Those costs could reach up to $4.9 million for Dayton Public Schools, which has about 15,000 students.

Five other area districts reviewed also would see costs top $1 million, including Springfield, Xenia, Hamilton, Middletown and Lakota.

The bulk of those costs come from an extra year of schooling for children who do not pass the third grade reading test. About 17,000 children statewide did not meet the reading requirement in 2010-11 and would qualify for retention under the new law but the ODE estimates that 3,000 to 5,000 of those children could be promoted through exemptions for students with disabilities and English language learners, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

At Springfield, the guarantee could cost $1.8 million; about $1.1 million of that is the cost of an extra year of schooling for retained students.

Springfield Superintendent David Estrop has concerns about the cost although he understand’s the state’s push for the reading guarantee.

“Why promote children if they don’t possess the reading skills and aren’t ready to move forward? But the cost concerns me and has from the very beginning,” he said.

Dayton Public Superintendent Lori Ward knows there will be costs associated with the guarantee but she doubts it will reach that level for her district because they are already doing some diagnostic testing and other things to help students stay on track. The formula also doesn’t take into account students with special needs and others who would not be retained.

“If children are retained, a district does incur the additional instructional expense to educate that child but I don’t have from my staff right now any type of scenario” like the newspaper analysis shows, she said.

Ward is concerned about the governor’s proposed expansion of the state’s Educational Choice Scholarship voucher program that would allow students in K-3 who fail, or fail to progress, in reading under the new guarantee to be eligible for state-funded vouchers to move to private schools. The district has lost more than $30 million to the existing voucher program through lost pupil funding.

“This carries a much larger ramification,” she said.

The guarantee is not just a question of promotion, said the ODE’s Charlton.

“A lot of people look at the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and think about retention because there’s a part in there that says students who aren’t on grade level will be retained,” he said. “But what we look at is as an intervention policy.”

The analysis found Fairborn City Schools – which the state recently placed in state “fiscal caution” – could have to pay more than $500,000 to comply. District Treasurer Eric Beavers said he hasn’t done his own cost estimates yet because there are still too many unknowns. “We don’t even know all the requirements,” he said, noting he hasn’t factored it into his five-year forecast because of that.

“It’s another mandate we can’t afford,” he said. “I just wish if they were going to bring us more educational requirements and unfunded mandates, they would send dollars to help fund those. We’re struggling hard enough. It just makes it more and more difficult because we have to pull funds from other needed services in order to meet these, especially when we are in budget reductions. We don’t have adequate funding to operate now.”

Tecumseh Local Schools also is facing state oversight after a series of failed levies. The additional costs of the third grade guarantee are a concern financially, Superintendent Brad Martin said. “We are trying to cut costs, not add costs at this point,” he said.

Sandra Bussell, director of elementary education in Hamilton City Schools, said that the district isn’t far enough into the process to know if those estimates are accurate or not, although there will be expenses in testing, training teachers on methods to improve reading skills and hiring tutors for after-school intervention.

“This year’s third grade students are performing 20 percent better based on the 2012 OAA scores,” she said. “All of our students in grades K through 3 are taking reading diagnostic assessments to determine if they need extra tutoring or after school intervention.”

Charlton said the guarantee may cost districts more money to comply with new requirements but literacy is a necessary skill.

“What’s the price of a kid reading on grade level or an adult going out into the workforce not knowing how to read?” he said. “What’s that worth?”

The new law requires school districts to begin testing students’ reading competency early in kindergarten and offer intervention services for the students who need it.

“Let’s get them intervention that they need early on so that at the time they’re in third grade, they’re reading on grade level,” Charlton said.

The Ohio School Boards Association estimates the cost of intervention services at $1,000 per student reading below grade level.

Beside the additional interventions and cost of retentions, school districts may have to bear the cost of additional training for teachers or hiring more teachers for students who are retained, Martin said. Because of Tecumseh’s financial woes, that may mean eliminating positions in other grade levels to accommodate the demands of the guarantee.

“It’s going to have a staggering effect,” he said. “It’s going to start in third grade but it’s going to touch everybody.”

Staff writer Richard O Jones contributed to this report.

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