The state legislature in June invoked a “third-grade reading guarantee,” requiring school districts beginning in 2014 to keep children from advancing to the fourth grade until they’ve mastered the basic reading skills.



The guarantee includes a list of costly programs: Districts must test all kindergarten through third-grade students, identify those reading below grade level, develop specialized plans for each child to bring them up to grade level, ensure that “actively engaged” teachers administer those specialized plans and report each step of the process to the state.



Nowhere, though, is there evidence that the legislature attempted to determine the costs of the reading requirement or who will have to pay.



Recent estimates suggest that local taxpayers could be left owing at least $100 million.



A Beacon Journal analysis shows that 17,079 children are likely to fall well below proficiency, and to keep them in school an additional year could cost $123 million. That doesn’t include the testing and intervention required beginning in kindergarten to identify all children who are at risk of failing, which could include another 60,000 and push the total cost to $209.6 million.



The Ohio School Boards Association used a different model, instead looking at the cost of testing a half-million elementary students and providing remedial help for 190,000 who are likely to fall short of higher reading goals, defined as a proficient score on the reading assessment. The association’s estimate is for $190 million more in total costs — and that doesn’t include the $123 million to keep kids back for a year.



Because school districts on average receive nearly half of their funding from local property taxes and nearly half from the state — federal programs provide the rest — it can be assumed that nearly half of the cost of the third-grade guarantee will come from local taxes.



That follows more than $200 million in state-aid cuts for school districts in Gov. John Kasich’s first two-year budget, approved in 2011.



“It’s a substantial amount of money, not withstanding the importance of getting kids to read,” said Damon Asbury, OSBA director of legislative services.



And David Varda, a former assistant state superintendent who now lobbies for school treasurers, said: “Everyone is starting to figure out that this is going to cost money. How much is unknown, and how it will be paid for is also uncertain.”



Unconstitutional?



The legislature’s creation of the reading guarantee is strikingly reminiscent of a fourth-grade reading guarantee enacted in 1997 — again without a cost estimate — and declared unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.



In the landmark DeRolph school funding case, the court said that unfunded mandates, while well intended, were a contributing factor to the inadequately funded public school system.



The court was highly critical of the legislature’s creation of mandates without first asking the cost, and second, for failing to provide the money.



“Many factors have contributed in recent years to make what had been a problematical system into one that has reached crisis proportions throughout the state,” Justice Alice Robie Resnick wrote in her 2001 opinion. “The problems have escalated in part due to ‘unfunded mandates’ imposed by the state and federal governments, causing the cost of educating our children to rise dramatically ... .”



After the court ordered the legislature to fully fund the reading guarantee, the Legislative Service Commission, a research arm of the legislature, was asked to do a cost estimate — something it had not done before enactment of the 1997 reading guarantee.



For remediation alone, such as after-school and summer programs, the LSC’s inflation-adjusted estimate was about $165 million, not unlike the OSBA’s estimate today.



Although studies overwhelmingly agree that the ability to read by the third grade is critical to academic success, the legislature’s response to the cost estimate in 2002 was to eliminate the reading guarantee rather than find the money.



For the new reading guarantee, approved last year as a part of Senate Bill 316, the Legislative Service Commission again did not provide a cost estimate.



Rep. Ron Amstutz, R-Wooster, was “surprised by that.” The chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee said the LSC “has a reputation” for adequately calculating the fiscal impacts of most bills.



State law requires the LSC to prepare a cost estimate, or impact statement, if a bill is expected to inflict more than minimal costs on local governments, although there are some loopholes.



“In the case of SB 316, we really did not come up with a set dollar amount,” said Wendy Zhan, deputy director of Budget and Fiscal Analysis at LSC. “In an ideal world, yes. We would like to have a dollar estimate.”



“Clearly that action that was taken in the last session is going to need to be stirred into the preparation of the funding mechanism and the overall funding amounts for this next session’s budget,” Amstutz said.



Those associated costs are moving targets, Zhan said. Some districts already have reading remediation, some are adding it, and all of this could affect the number of kids who pass the test.



“It’s just hard for us to feel comfortable to quantify this,” Zhan said.



Districts on brink



In the LSC’s work a dozen years ago, it surveyed school districts to gain an understanding of how many already had remedial programs and teacher training so that its estimates reflected real costs.



A Beacon Journal survey of several local districts showed that some are prepared, some are not.



Akron, which has a large percentage of struggling students, already has extended sessions and a $1 million Literacy Level Intervention program.



The Beacon Journal estimates fiscal impacts for Akron at nearly $4.5 million.



Woodridge, which receives very little state aid, has begun to adjust its curriculum but does not have after-school or summer programs.



“We’re swimming in the midst of numerous changes coming from the state,” Treasurer Kirk Bennett said. “There’s so much at once, we’re all trying to keep up with that.”



Last year, Tricia Marchand in Coventry schools was responsible for six tutors, who school officials say are “critical” to providing the interventions mandated in the third-grade guarantee.



However, because of the elimination of nine full-time teachers and $2.2 million in budget cuts over two years, the tutors must take care of themselves this year. And Marchand has taken on the additional responsibility of teaching the first grade.



Lisa Blough, Coventry’s director of curriculum and instruction, said she is attempting to implement programs to satisfy new state mandates with a 37.5 percent reduction in her department.



“This is the perfect example of an unfunded mandate,” Blough said of the third-grade reading guarantee.



For some districts, the requirements offer a logistical nightmare. Students who score proficient in math and fail reading, for example, would receive fourth-grade math and third-grade reading instruction the following year. Only certain teachers will be allowed to work with those children.



In addition to a mandatory minimum of three years experience teaching reading, credentials that currently can qualify a teacher are: a master’s degree in reading, a rating of “above value-added” for the last two years, a passing score on a reading instruction test or a special K-12 reading endorsement.



But when districts already are coping with large class sizes, reduced funding and union contracts that sometimes dictate teacher placement, it becomes difficult to adjust.



“This is a bigger unfunded mandate than the norm, but we’re used to these things,” Coventry treasurer Aaron Butts said.



And so Butts hasn’t yet adjusted his five-year projections to reflect the mandates. There are too many unknowns. The governor will unveil his new budget proposals on Feb. 4 and the legislature will have until June 30 to deliver the budget for the next two years.



“The governor hasn’t indicated one way or the other how much money we’re going to get or how much money is going to be cut,” Butts said. “The governor is basically tight-lipped about any talk about budgets with schools.”



Minimal state help



While local schools struggle with the surprises from the state, lawmakers were informed that the third-grade reading guarantee would come at a high cost.



Asbury said OSBA did the math last year, and he provided estimates in legislative testimony in August after the bill’s passage.



He estimated that 190,000 elementary school students would require reading intervention at a cost of about $1,000 each, or $190 million.



That doesn’t include the cost of retaining students who may be kept in the third grade an additional year.



About 17,079 students in the last reading assessment scored below the cut score of 392 and conceivably could be retained at an additional cost of about $123 million.



The state wants to increase the cut score to 400, which could add about 10,000 more students to that list and increase retention costs by more than 50 percent.



The worst-case scenario, which combines both remediation, retention and the highest cut score, could push the total cost to more than $300 million, with about half of that forced upon local property taxes.



The state did pull $13 million from lottery profits this school year to help prepare for the reading guarantee.



“That’s probably a drop in the bucket,” said Michelle Francis, deputy director of legislative services at OSBA.



The $13 million supports the Early Literacy and Reading Readiness Competitive Grant. The money won’t be distributed automatically to school districts identified with the greatest need. Instead, districts — regardless of size or number of students impacted ­— must apply individually for $100,000 grants, or share services with other districts and receive up to $250,000.



Meanwhile, no one is arguing the merits of the guarantee.



“The bottom line is that every student deserves to read on grade level,” said Department of Education spokesman John Charlton.



“I can tell you that Ohio has gotten pretty good at meeting the minimum standard. That level is not that high,” Charlton said. “We expect more from the schools and the teachers … It’s going to be tough the next couple of years; there’s no doubt about it.”



Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.