Alaska’s literacy rates have been below the national average for an entire decade, despite the state ranking among the top five states on education spending per student. In addition, despite having one of the most progressive funding systems in the nation—which means the state’s high-poverty districts receive more money than students in low-poverty districts—only 25 percent of Alaska fourth graders are proficient in reading.
Through bipartisan support, “Read by 9” legislation was passed Alaska’s House and Senate, seeking to address and resolve the literacy crisis in the state. The bill has now been signed into law by Alaska’s governor.
This legislation is a victory for Alaska’s students and has been championed and supported by the Alaska Policy Forum (APF), a nonpartisan policy organization in the state. APF has been calling on state legislators to address this issue for over nine years by reporting on the state’s poor reading test performance and providing solutions to improve the state’s early literacy rates.
According to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a third grader’s reading proficiency is a key indicator of their overall academic success and the likelihood of high school graduation. As grade level demands increase in rigor and difficulty, students who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade tend to fall further behind their proficient reading peers and the academic achievement gap widens. By fourth grade, if students are still struggling to read, half of the curriculum at higher grade levels will be incomprehensible to them.
The “Read by 9” bill adapts initiatives from programs which saw success in Florida and Mississippi, taking Mississippi from one of the worst performing states in the nation to one of the top performing in fourth grade reading scores. This legislation helps teachers and parents identify students who are struggling to read in early grades and provides those students with intensive programs and monitoring, equips teachers with the knowledge and training to effectively teach reading and comprehension skills, and directs Alaska’s public schools to ensure students read proficiently by the age of nine. Should students still not be proficient by age nine, further intervention occurs. The bill also provides funding for six reading specialists to train Alaska’s public school teachers on the best and most effective literacy practices, and includes a virtual platform of reading lessons for students.
The fight for meaningful education reform in Alaska has been a long and often times, frustrating experience. Yet regardless of setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic and objections from the teachers’ union, Alaska Policy Forum was instrumental in helping to pass this legislation. As a staunch advocate of education reform and calling on state legislators to address poor literacy scores in Alaska, APF has been leading the charge on education reform in the state.
In a 2019 policy brief co-authored by APF CEO Bethany Marcum and senior education research fellow, Robert Griffin, APF highlighted the failing reading scores of Alaska’s third grade students and provided tangible solutions that included early literacy and reading intervention programs, early screening to identify and provide support for struggling readers, and literacy resources for teachers and parents. In addition, the report cited the success that both Florida and Mississippi, once poor performing states, had experienced in literacy rates after adopting similar legislation.
The organization also created the PEAKS Data Map, an online database and map which annually reports Alaska’s public school reading assessment performance, in an effort to increase government transparency, improve school accountability, and prompt state lawmakers to pass serious education reform in the state.
Advocating for increased educational options is one of the best ways to meet the needs of students, however there is still much to be done for students who choose to remain in public schools. A student’s ability to read is one of the most critical predictors of later life outcomes. That’s why Alaska Policy Forum pursued an early literacy program. Not only does it improve student outcomes, it also saves state dollars that would otherwise go to remedial instruction and dropout prevention in later grades.
State Policy Network has long advocated for education reforms that prioritize students and achieve better educational outcomes. In partnership with SPN’s “Maximizing Advocacy Project,” which seeks to build government affairs capacity and advance policy wins in states, Alaska Policy Forum spearheaded a multiyear effort to pass “Read by 9.”
With SPN support, Alaska Policy Forum hired government affairs talent to advance the reform and help APF connect and build critical relationships with key state lawmakers and national education reform leaders. Marcum thanked SPN for its support in helping advance this important legislation, “This reform wouldn’t have happened without APF being part of SPN’s Maximizing Advocacy Project. On behalf of Alaska’s students and families who will benefit from this for decades, please accept our deep appreciation.”
SPN also provided government affairs coaching and strategic grants for APF to effectively message their education policy solutions to state legislators and coalition partners on the ground.
The relentless efforts of Alaska Policy Forum and their partners will not only help to increase the literacy rates of Alaskan students, but it will also open the door for additional education reforms that focus on improving the education and overall development of student academic success.