LB651: Your Voice Made a Difference

By Maddie Fennell, NSEA Executive Director

I want to share how the active involvement of many teachers across our state completely changed the direction of LB651, the third grade reading bill.

Last year Sen. Lou Ann Linehan introduced LB651, which mandated third grade retention for students who could not pass a grade level reading assessment.

The Legislature’s Education Committee had not yet acted on the bill when Linehan exercised a rarely utilized provision which pulled the bill out of committee and into first round debate by the full Legislature.

NSEA and our members across the state fought this bill because we knew that it was not what was good for kids. Linehan’s bill did not advance, but was left for action in this legislative session.

A Common Goal

Dr. Mary Schlieder, the 2008 Nebraska Teacher of the Year and a special education teacher for the Norris Public Schools, decided it was time to exercise her teacher leadership.

“I had been emailing senators regarding education bills throughout the last session. I was new to this level of political engagement,” she said. “However, I had seen the results of misguided reform efforts in other states and I didn’t want to see that happen in our state. Senator Linehan regularly responded to my emails and took us up on the offer to visit our school.

“She came to my classroom and watched me do a reading lesson with a 10th grader who has severe dyslexia and a significant hearing impairment. He’s making tremendous strides in his specialized reading program and works hard every single day, but he’s one of the students who still appears yearly on our list of ‘not proficient’ students.

“Sen. Linehan was kind and gracious to my student, noting how she appreciated his efforts. She also visited several other classrooms that morning, witnessing our dedicated teachers and administration.

“I followed up with an email thanking her for taking the time to visit and she invited me to her office in the Capitol for lunch to continue the discussion. Sen. Linehan asked good questions and listened carefully. I explained the Response to Intervention (RTI) process many schools in our state were already using to help struggling readers. We discussed alternative ways to meet our common goal: to help all kids be proficient readers. This included the importance of early childhood intervention programs, quality before and after school programs, and providing teachers additional training in remedial reading interventions.”

‘No One Out to Hurt Kids’

Schlieder said she learned a few things through the process. First, it is essential that educators invite legislators into classrooms. “People are getting their information (and misinformation) on media that often promotes bias and surface reporting. When legislators see what we’re actually doing for kids, perceptions change,” she said.

Second, legislators, even those who may not understand how our schools work, care just as deeply about our kids as we do. No one is out to hurt kids.

Finally, it’s not enough for teachers to just do their jobs in the classroom. If teachers are not actively engaged in informing our lawmakers, we can expect the same turmoil currently being experienced in schools in other states.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks joined Linehan on a statewide tour of schools that provided a firsthand look at how reading is really taught across the state. Because of their tour, LB651 is now an entirely different bill. It does not call for any retention and, in fact, emphasizes those practices which are most conducive to strong student learning in reading.

Still Some Concerns

Is the bill perfect? No. We are still very concerned that it calls for all school districts to offer a summer reading camp a/k/a summer school reading. We don’t know yet what effect this may have on school budgets. But we are extremely proud of the impact that our members had on this legislation and the potential positive impact it could have on overall student reading success.

Thank you to Mary and to the myriad of other teachers who advocated for students and for their profession by being in dialogue with elected leaders. Their actions are going to affect not just their own students, but children all across the state.

Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of legacy?