DENVER – Before he was one of the most popular governors in America, before he was mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper was a learning-disabled student who flunked seventh grade.
The Colorado governor took a rare step Monday and testified on a bill in order to support his administration’s goal of helping children learn to read.
He surprised people in a packed hearing room with his personal story.
“What I remember most vividly is the sense of always being a little bit behind the other kids in class and the sense that I wasn’t cut out for class,” Hickenlooper said.
He was in 10th or 11th grade before he ever read a book for pleasure.
He was dyslexic, although educators rarely understood the condition when he was in school. He had to repeat seventh grade.
The bill he supports, House Bill 1238, attempts to get Colorado schools to focus on reading skills in the early grades – kindergarten through third grade – and identify kids who are having trouble.
It passed 10-3 Monday in the House Education Committee, and it now goes to the Appropriations Committee.
Early drafts of the bill last year called for students to flunk third grade – educators call it “retention” – if they can’t read.
Hickenlooper said he was strongly against the idea of mandatory retention.
“I ask myself again and again whether I would have been better off redoing third grade instead of seventh grade. It would have been emotionally more difficult for me,” Hickenlooper said in an interview after his testimony. “It would have been very traumatic for me socially.”
Many parents and teachers testified against the concept of flunking third-graders.
Instead, the bill calls for extra help for young children who fall behind in reading. It tells teachers to notify parents of problems with their kids, so they can help craft a “Reading to Ensure Academic Development” plan, or READ plan.
If students are not reading well by the end of third grade, parents, teachers and administrators are supposed to meet and decide if the kids should repeat third grade.
The bill stands as one of the few major pieces of legislation with bipartisan support, and it is among Hickenlooper’s highest priorities.
Lawmakers cheered the focus on childhood literacy, but Democrats said a lack of funding could turn the bill into another education-reform initiative with no money to back it up.
Witnesses from the Colorado Education Association – the state’s major teachers’ union – supported parts of the bill, but they warned it could burden teachers with paperwork.
“We believe teachers’ primary time should be spent with students,” said CEA President Beverly Ingle.
Hickenlooper said he thinks the bill could save money in the long term by reducing costs for students who fall behind or act up in class.
“I was one of those kids who was, let’s say, often disruptive in class,” Hickenlooper said. “I didn’t feel connected because I was always behind.”
The House Education Committee spent seven hours hearing testimony and debating the bill Monday.