After years of lobbying and organizing among families and advocates, Gov. Chris Christie has signed two bills intended to make it easier to identify dyslexic students and improve the training their teachers get.
But getting the bills signed could prove the easy part; a host of challenges remain to be met in order to make those improvements stick.
But what may be the most consequential bill — one that would require screening of all first-graders for dyslexia and other reading disorders — remains pending in the Legislature, its passage no means assured.
“That’s a big one, and where we need to work next,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), the primary sponsor of the bills in the Senate.
Van Drew and other advocates could at least celebrate on Friday, as Christie signed the second of two bills dealing with dyslexia that passed the Legislature this spring.
Dyslexia, the most recognized of reading problems, is a neurological disorder that is often characterized by difficulties in recognizing and decoding words, leading to lower comprehension and fluency.
No precise count is available, but some estimates say that as many as one in 10 people may be dyslexic, and even one in five people may show symptoms.
Despite the prevalence of dyslexia, the laws signed by Christie last week for the first time prominently address the problem in state statute and regulation, making it a requirement for districts to deal with the disorder.
On Wednesday, Christie signed a law that requires districts to provide at least two hours of training in dyslexia and other reading disorders to every general education teacher in grades pre-K through 3 and special education and reading teachers.
On Friday, he signed a second law that requires the International Dyslexia Association definition of the disorder be specifically written into special education code as one of the disabilities that must be recognized.
“No longer will anyone in a school be able to say there is no such thing as dyslexia or how they don’t recognize it,” Van Drew said. “This sets the foundation for everything else.”
Liz Barnes, a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia NJ, a parent advocacy group, called it a “good first step.”
“We hope it will lay the groundwork for what will be a series of changes,” she said. “This should open the conversation and tell districts they can’t look a parent in the face and tell them dyslexia doesn’t exist.”
Attorney Elizabeth Athos represented a Jersey City student a decade ago who is dyslexic but was never provided specialized reading instruction as he moved up through the grades in special education classes.
Ultimately, an outside evaluation confirmed the disorder, but at that point he was a 20-year-old in 10th grade. He sued the district for not providing services earlier, as well as the state for failing to hold the district accountable after the first complaint was filed.
In a landmark case known as A.W. v. Jersey City that made it to the federal appeals court, the young man eventually reached monetary settlements with both the district and the state.
Athos, an attorney with the Education Law Center in Newark, said these fundamental changes in statute and code could have made a difference in the young man’s life.
“They never acknowledged that [A.W.] had dyslexia, and it took years later and the independent evaluation,” she said yesterday. “Districts really haven’t ever been willing to talk about dyslexia. We hear it over and over from parents.”
“Now, once you have said that child has dyslexia, there will be certain services that they will be entitled,” Athos said.
Yet just putting dyslexia into law and code doesn’t then guarantee that services will suddenly be made available in the most effective instructional practices.
“Simply adding more language to the state code will not guarantee effective, evidence-based services or early intervention,” said Brenda Considine, a parent advocate who testified on the bills.
“Parents will still have to be active advocates and work with their districts to ensure that reading programs are appropriate,” she said.
Barnes said the precise wording of the regulations will also be critical, with the State Board of Education being the next step in that process. New code can take as much as six months or longer to complete.
Worries about cost continue as well.
The screening bill that has passed the Senate but not the Assembly has largely been stalled due to concerns about the cost to districts. A fiscal analysis by legislative staff said the evaluation instruments alone could cost up to $20 per student, or $1.8 million statewide, and the additional personnel time needed another $4 million.
That bill had initially called for every kindergartener to be screened, but has since been revised to cover every first-grader.
The bill on teacher training was also dogged by money questions, and it was reduced from an initial proposal of 20 hours of training. The signed bill requiring two hours a year comes with no state funding.
And for every addition of a disorder like dyslexia to law and code, there are others that don’t get the same attention.
“Any time you define one thing in code, you run the risk of assumptions based on omission,” Considine said. “Dyslexia is only one of many types of learning disabilities that affect students.
“Students with dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and executive function disorders are now and must continue to be eligible for services, even though the code does not define those specific learning disabilities,” she said.