Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

The act prioritizes literacy for young learners. 

RICHMOND— There’s a lot of pressure in third grade both for the students and the teachers, and it’s been that way for at least the past decade. In 2012, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a study, “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” which found that students who didn’t read proficiently by third grade were four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma, compared to peers who were proficient readers. 

Longitudinal study conductor Donald Hernandez, who at the time of the research worked as a professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and as senior advisor to the Foundation for Child Development, stated in 2012: “These findings suggest we need to work in three arenas: improving the schools where these children are learning to read, helping the families weighed down by poverty, and encouraging better federal, state, and local policy to improve the lot of both schools and families.”

This year, the Virginia General Assembly pursued reading challenges head-on. In a bipartisan effort, both Democrats and Republicans supported the Virginia Literacy Act, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed into law in April.

What Is The Virginia Literacy Act And Why Is It Needed?

Tandem bills in favor of the Virginia Literacy Act entered the General Assembly earlier this year as House Bill (HB) 319 and Senate Bill (SB) 616. In the House of Delegates, Republican Del. Carrie Coyner sponsored the bill. In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Louise Lucas and Jennifer McClellan sponsored the companion bill. Together, the legislators worked toward grounding literacy instruction in science-based reading research and evidence-based literacy instruction.

Lawmakers weren’t the only individuals entwined in the process. Kara Hafermalz and Christina Kelly, students at the University of Virginia School of Law, worked with state legislators to draft the act. According to a release by the college, the students, along with Coyner, studied other states that previously enacted similar changes and also looked at the Code of Virginia to see where changes could most effectively occur. The team also conversed with K-12 stakeholders and made necessary adjustments to the draft legislation.

According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, only one-in-three students read proficiently by the third grade. If their reading levels aren’t up to par, the foundation noted that students lag behind in classes because more than 85% of the curriculum beyond third grade relies on reading. By the end of third grade, 74% of struggling readers won’t ever catch up to their more literate peers. The Virginia Literacy Act aims to tackle the issue. 

“The Virginia Literacy Act gives the commonwealth an opportunity to reprioritize not just the Department of Education, not just school divisions, not just the legislature or the state board, but all of us to prioritize around literacy education for our youngest learners,” said Jillian Balow, Virginia superintendent of instruction, in a video posted by the Virginia Department of Education on April 5. “We can talk about everything else that our children in the commonwealth need to do to be successful, but if they don’t know how to read and read proficiently by third grade, their chances of succeeding in school and life are significantly diminished.”

Balow went on to talk about prioritizing around literacy education, as children struggled to stay ahead during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s also the individual that requested the removal of EdEquityVA resources offered through the Virginia Department of Education’s (VDOE) Virginia Is For Learners website, an action directly related to an interim report required by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Executive Order One.

After the ceremonial signing of the law on April 28 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Youngkin’s office released the following about the Virginia Literacy Act: “[It] ensures that teachers are trained in the science of reading, supported by science-driven professional development, and requires school systems to provide all students with instruction, screening, and monitoring of their early reading progress, with those results shared with parents. Working with parents, schools will be required to create an individualized reading plan for each student identified to have a reading deficiency. The bill also requires that school systems provide resources to support literacy development at home.”

Additionally, the act requires one reading specialist for every 550 students in grades K-3.

What Are Lawmakers and Leaders Saying? 

Virginia lawmakers and leaders from both sides of the political aisle took to Twitter to express their opinions on the passage of the Virginia Literacy Act. 

“I’m proud of my work with [Sen. Louise Lucas] and [Del. Carrie Coyner] on the bipartisan Virginia Literacy Act to use evidence-based practices to improve how Virginia teaches young learners to read and develop lifelong literacy skills,” McClellan wrote

Del. Rodney Willett (D-VA) tweeted: “Proud to join my colleagues and students from MLK Middle School for the signing of the Virginia Literacy Act! A true bipartisan effort [led] by [Del. Carrie Coyner], [Sen. Louise Lucas], [Sen. Jennifer McClellan] [and] more, to use evidence-based reading practices to improve reading education.”

“Education lifted my family out of poverty, and education is still the key that opens doors. I was delighted to participate in the governor’s bill signing for the Virginia Literacy Act,” Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears tweeted in part. 

Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-VA) wrote: “Really proud to be a chief co-patron of this [Del. Carrie Coyner] bill. Proof that we can still make bipartisan achievements in education and focus on what’s best for kids.”

Others made statements in the press release that the governor’s office put together. 

Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera expressed both excitement over the passage and concern over the budget.

“The Virginia Literacy Act is a game-changing bipartisan effort currently stuck in neutral until the budget passes,” Guidera said. “Implementing this evidence-based legislation, including deploying reading coaches to work with our most-behind students and their teachers, is critical to preparing children to succeed across the commonwealth. This transformational work cannot start until the General Assembly delivers appropriate funding to the governor’s desk.”

Youngkin added: “This legislation aims to ensure above all else that every student, no matter their zip code, family income, or background, learns to read leveraging the most effective, evidence-based methods. Early literacy is the foundation for succeeding in school and in life. We must do everything to provide our students with every tool to achieve their unique dreams.”

The new law passed both the House and the Senate unanimously.