Bill Requiring Schools to Screen for Dyslexia Finally Makes Headway

John Mooney | December 2, 2013 | Education
Amendments address concerns about costs and scope of testing for reading-related disorders

dyslexia rightsized
Once considered a long shot for passage, a bill that would require screening of young children for dyslexia and other reading-related disorders seems to be gathering momentum in the Legislature.

The bill was part of a package of a half-dozen proposals spearheaded by a group of parents seeking to raise awareness of dyslexia and to make schools do more to address the disorder.

Most of those proposals ultimately passed the Legislature and were signed by Gov. Chris Christie, including bills requiring training of teachers and specific identification of dyslexia in regulations and law.

But the capstone of the legislative package — the screening bill — was separated from the others and was always seen as the toughest one to pass, since it demanded the most of schools and would likely come with significant costs.

But the bill made significant progress two weeks ago with a unanimous endorsement by the Assembly’s appropriations committee and it may be headed to the full Assembly for a vote later this month. It has already passed the Senate once, but would likely need another vote on amendments.

The bill has gone through some significant changes to address concerns raised over costs and logistics. In its original form, the bill would have required screening of all students by the end of kindergarten for reading disorders.

The bill has since amended several times, moving back the deadline for screening to the middle of second grade and, most recently, limiting the screening to children who show other identifiable signs of difficulty with reading. The bill would also require “evidence-based” interventions for those found to have such disorders.

“Is it the bill we always dreamed of, no,” said Liz Barnes, a member of Decoding Dyslexia NJ, an advocacy group, who testified before the Assembly committee. “But it has promise and it is definitely better than the nothing we have now.”

Barnes said she was encouraged that the revamped bill may be heading to a final vote.

“The fact the committee didn’t have any issues with it (as amended) makes me hopeful,” she said.

The bill has drawn concerns from some school organizations, especially when it initially called for screening of all students. The potential cost and time required for such universal screening were the major stumbling blocks.

A fiscal analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services initially put the potential costs at $1.8 million statewide for the screenings alone, but it said the latest amendments would bring down the price significantly.

“By limiting the required screening to students who have exhibited potential indicators of dyslexia or other reading disabilities, the amendments reduce the number of students who are required to be screened, and may reduce both the number of students required to receive an assessment and, ultimately, evidence-based intervention strategies that address the disability,” read the OLS’ final analysis.

A spokesman for the Assembly majority said no decision has been made yet on whether to post the bill at the Assembly’s next voting session on Dec. 19.

On the Senate side, its prime sponsor, state Sen. Jeff van Drew (D-Cape May), said he was also was hopeful the bill could pass within the next month. Its Assembly sponsor, state Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cape May), was not reelected to the Assembly, so this would be his last chance to see the bill pass while still in office.

“We’re going to push for it, and I think it is a real possibility,” Van Drew said last week.

Van Drew said the cost issue is probably the biggest challenge to passage, and he would be willing to amend his Senate bill to address it.

“If there is some amending to do, I’d be open to it,” he said. “I’m not sure there is a huge cost issue, but if we could show there would be testing without those costs, I’d be open to it.”