A few weeks ago, Governor Nikki Haley signed into law the Read to Succeed Act, a momentous bill that makes early childhood reading a top priority in South Carolina schools. Not a minute too soon, either.
Nearly everyone understands how vital it is for a nation to produce a literate population, and most folks have read or heard at least one statistic demonstrating the power of learning to read at an early age. Statistics like, “children who are not reading proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school,[i]” or “below basic readers are almost six times more likely than proficient readers to not finish high school on time.[ii]” And if you’re reading this blog, chances are you even understand why third grade is such a watershed year—because in fourth grade you begin “reading to learn” as opposed to “learning to read.”
However, not many people outside South Carolina—or perhaps even within South Carolina—know just how dire the situation has become in the Palmetto State. According to the 2013 Nation’s Report Card, 51 percent of low-income fourth graders read at a below-basic level. The picture doesn’t look much brighter when you look at all fourth graders, not just low-income students: 40 percent of all fourth graders in the state were reading at a below-basic level. Stats like these suggest an uphill battle for many of the state’s future workforce.
But the night is darkest just before dawn; with the signing of Read to Succeed, it looks like the sun is rising on literacy in South Carolina.
The newly minted law is not just a focus on earlier intervention strategies, and it isn’t retaining third graders just for the sake of having them sit in the same desk for another year. “Read to Succeed” is a comprehensive Kindergarten-through-third-grade reading policy that includes reading coaches in every elementary school, summer camps for struggling readers, performance-based promotion to the fourth grade, earlier and more targeted interventions, greater parental involvement, and expanded access to the existing South Carolina Child Early Reading Development and Education Program. And despite what some critics claim, the law will not retain students based off of one test on one day—in fact retention is not even a goal of the policy, but instead a last resort to save children from the damaging effects of social promotion. Under “Read to Succeed,” South Carolina students will have multiple opportunities to demonstrate sufficient reading skills for promotion, and can also qualify for various good cause exemptions.
Naturally, an all-encompassing law such as “Read to Succeed” could not have passed without help from state leaders. To that point, this bill was publicly supported by Governor Haley earlier this year as she set aside over $30 million in her executive budget for implementation, which was fully funded in the final budget. In the state legislature, both the Senate and the House benefitted from a passionate champion stepping forward—Senator Harvey Peeler and Representative Andy Patrick respectively. But perhaps even more impressive than having multiple leaders emerge was the bipartisan effort galvanized by the shared desire to put aside petty politics and actually produce good policy.
Unlike many pieces of legislation that challenge the status quo, “Read to Succeed” did not squeak by on a two-vote margin where politicians voted down party lines. No, this bill—which was two years of hard work and compromise in the making—passed overwhelmingly in both chambers with bipartisan vote counts of 66-5 in the House and 40-4 in the Senate.
Of course, good policy only becomes good law with a strong implementation. There is still much work to be done and numerous potholes are sure to line the road to ultimate success—having all third graders reading on grade level.
[i] Annie E. Casey Foundation
[ii] Annie E. Casey Foundation
About the author
Matt Minnick is the Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He is a Teach For America alumni, joining the corps in 2007 and teaching courses in English and Public Speaking at the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government, and Public Policy, in Atlanta, Georgia. A native Floridian, Matt attended Florida public schools from Kindergarten through 12th grade. He graduated cum laude from North Carolina State University, earning a B.A. in Media Communication with a double minor in Creative Writing and Political Science. Following his years as a teacher, Matt earned a J.D. from the Florida State University College of Law, graduating cum laude. While at Florida State, Matt won a Mock Trial championship and spent a summer working for the General Counsel of the National School Boards Association. Contact Matt at MattM@excelined.org