Assembly passes reading literacy, contraceptive and alcohol overhaul bill

Wisconsin Assembly lawmakers passed a bill that would revamp the way children are taught to read in Wisconsin, another that would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control and legislation to overhaul the state’s alcohol laws Wednesday. 

AB 321, which passed 67-27, would move students towards a “science of reading” approach, which focuses on phonics and learning to sound out letters and phrases, and away from a “balanced literacy” approach, which focuses on pictures, word cues and memorization. Gov. Tony Evers hasn’t said he would sign the bill if it passes the Legislature, but Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Jill Underly signaled her support on Wednesday after the Assembly vote.

Bill author Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said the current approach used in many schools across the state is failing students and certain methods have been proven to now work.

“We are failing and this is an opportunity to change that,” Kitchens said. He said reading and education are integral to breaking cycles of generational poverty. 

“When people ask me what’s my biggest fear for the future of Wisconsin, I say it’s the growing number of people that are trapped in generational poverty and depending on the government generation after generation, and the one chance that we have in breaking that cycle is education,” Kitchens said. 

The bill centers on switching Wisconsin students to a “science-based early reading instruction,” which would look to be systematic and explicit in its approach and would need to include things like phonics, building background knowledge, oral language development, vocabulary building, instruction in writing, instruction in comprehension and reading fluency. 

The bill would create an Office of Literacy in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which would be responsible for establish and supervise a literacy coaching program to improve literacy outcomes in the state. It also would pay for professional development to retrain teachers in the “science of reading,” pay for 64 reading coaches to go to schools around the state and create a Council on Early Literacy to review and recommend curriculum. Evers and Republican lawmakers agreed to dedicate $50 million in the 2023-25 budget to reading literacy. 

After the bill passed, Underly, who had previously said she opposed the bill, said in a statement that the department and lawmakers have had “very productive conversations” over the last several months about creating a reading package that puts the needs of Wisconsin children first. She said they finally reached an agreement. 

Among provisions that Underly and DPI had initially opposed was one that would have held third-graders back if they didn’t meet certain reading scores. Under the version of the bill passed on Wednesday, students who don’t meet their reading benchmarks would be able to move on in school, but would be put on an “intensive” reading plan and may need to complete a summer reading program. Kitchens said the student would be on the plan until their reading skills are at grade-level.

“By using evidence-based early reading strategies that include explicit and systematic phonics instruction, first and foremost, further training for our state’s educators to ensure they have the knowledge and resources needed to be successful in teaching early reading, keeping parents and caregivers continuously informed and consulted, and providing much-needed support for literacy to those schools that need it the most, we were able to get this important reading package over the finish line,” Underly said. “We have a significant amount of work ahead of us to help change student outcomes, but this reading package is a big step in the right direction.”

Gov. Tony Evers had previously threatened to veto the bill before changes to the bill were adopted. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudabeck said the governor is still reviewing the amendment. 

Assembly Democrats, including some who voted for the bill, said the bill was not ready to be passed and proposed a motion to send the bill back to committee; that failed. 

“It’s very, very close, but it’s not ready,” Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) said. “We just got an amendment literally an hour or so ago and it fundamentally changed a number of things. I do not know, because I haven’t had a chance to hear from the school districts in my district, how they feel about this bill. Why? Because they’re teaching.” 

Kitchens said he’s been collaborating with DPI since November, and that the recent changes to the bill were mostly over wording. He said the bill wasn’t rushed and to wait any longer would kill the bill.

“It’s a very complicated bill. There’s always going to be something someone doesn’t like, but we need to get this done,” Kitchens said. “The funding [is] going to be in the budget, so pushing this down the road just makes it much more likely it’ll fall apart.” 

Other lawmakers spoke to some of the provisions that prohibit the use of the three-cueing method in curriculum and by reading coaches and teachers. According to the bill, “three-cueing” means any model of teaching a pupil to read based on meaning, structure and syntax, and visual cues or memory.

Rep. Ryan Clancy (D-Milwaukee) said banning any instruction tool outright could have a negative impact on students because not every student learns the same way. 

“This would ban one effective form of education, one specific tactic, three-cueing, and would lift up phonics …phonics is a great solution for literacy for some students, and three-cueing is a great solution for literacy for other students,” said Clancy, who voted against the bill. “We are doing our students and our teachers and our schools and our wider community a huge disservice when we take a tool away from teachers and ban one form of instruction, and that is what this does.” 

Kitchens said the three-cueing approach is ineffective and should not be used to teach students to read. 

“In the 1980s, we went to the balanced literacy approach, the three-cueing system — which is pretty much banned in the bill — has been brought up a couple times by the other side because it was so engraved in people, but it’s disproven,” Kitchens said. “It is wrong.”

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said the bill doesn’t consider the full circumstances surrounding how children are performing in schools. She said the proposals in the bill will not serve the problem long-term. 

“If a kid is starting their day hungry, they can’t concentrate on the lesson. If a teacher has a crowded classroom, they can’t adequately teach every kid in an individualized style that they need to learn…” Hong said. “Topical fixes in the form of one-time funding are not the long-term solutions to this problem.” 

Several of the fixes in the bill including the reading coaches and training for teachers are only funded for a certain amount of time with one-time money. 

Assembly passes bipartisan bill to expand birth control access 

Another bill, authored by Kitchens, that would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control in Wisconsin passed with overwhelming bipartisan support on a vote of 82-11. 

The bill would allow patients over the age of 18 to get a birth control prescription from a pharmacist rather than a primary care physician. Currently, Wisconsinites seeking birth control must make an appointment with a doctor or an advanced practice nurse and answer a mandatory list of questions regarding their health. Only then are they given a prescription to take to a pharmacy to be filled. 

All votes against the bill were Republicans. All Democrats voted in favor of the bill. 

Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said the bill was an important first step, but that lawmakers should  keep working to expand women’s reproductive rights. 

“Birth control is a safe medication that enables us to be able to plan our families, to be able to plan our careers, to be able to plan our futures and to have economic security,” Subeck said. “It is about our freedom to make our own health decisions, and it’s also about our own freedom to make our own life decisions about where our futures will take us.” 

Along with other lawmakers, she expressed concern about whether the bill would progress in the Senate, where it would have to pass before it could be sent to Evers, who would likely sign it. The bill was considered by the Legislature during the 2019 and 2021 sessions, but failed to pass the Senate each time.

“I am also very frustrated that we see this bill come forward every session and it can’t even get a hearing in the Senate,” Subeck said. 

Bipartisan support for alcohol laws overhaul

The Assembly voted 90-4 to approve AB 304, a bill that would overhaul Wisconsin’s alcohol laws. Some of the policies in the bill include creating a Division of Alcohol Beverages within the Department of Revenue, making changes related to the retail sales authority of brewers, wineries and other alcoholic beverage producers and related businesses, including allowing them, to provide free taste samples on retail premises and increasing the limits on the amount of beer a brewpub may manufacture and self-distribute.

Rep. Clint Anderson (D-Beloit), Rep. Marisabela Cabrera (D-Milwaukee), Rep. Rick Gundrum (R – Slinger) and Rep. Jenna Jacobson (D-Oregon) voted against the bill. 

Anderson said he voted against the bill due to the trouble that it could cause wedding barn venues, which have largely served alcohol unregulated for years. Operators of wedding venues, testified during a public hearing on the bill that one provision, which would require them and any other “public place” that serves alcohol, to obtain a “no sale event venue permit” that allows the owner to rent or lease the property and allow beer and wine to be served at no more than six events per year and no more than once per month,

Anderson introduced an amendment that would have created a grace period for wedding venues to adapt to the changes, but it failed. 

“I could not vote in favor of overregulating our wedding barns and potentially resulting in their closures. I offered an amendment which was an olive branch,” Anderson said in a statement. “This amendment would have delayed the regulations by a year and ensured that weddings currently booked would be honored. That unfortunately did not move forward.” 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said wedding venues should be required to follow the same laws that others are required to follow. 

“I love the wedding barn industry. I think it’s great that we have entrepreneurs who do it, but they have to follow the law. rThey have to follow the rules,” Vos said at a press conference before the floor session. “So if you are serving, in a public venue, alcohol, you should have licensed bartenders, you should go through the same liquor license process that a tavern or a restaurant goes through. It shouldn’t be allowing one segment to kind of use a loophole that they thought existed in the law.” 

Assembly doesn’t take up technical college legislation

Despite being listed on the calendar, the Assembly did not take up a bill to remove the taxing authority of state technical colleges.

The bill was originally written to eliminate Wisconsin’s personal property tax. Most of that language was included in the shared revenue legislation that Evers signed this week, however. After holding a  public hearing on the bill, Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), who chairs the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, offered the amendment changing the purpose of the bill to removing technical colleges from the property tax rolls. The committee approved the amendment on a party-line vote.

While Macco officially introduced the amendment, documents obtained by WPR show that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) requested the change to the bill.

The Wisconsin Technical College System and their 16 member colleges oppose the bill as amended. Wisconsin Technical College System President Morna Foy said in a statement that the amendment, which was passed without an opportunity for public testimony, eliminates local controls of technical college programs and services. Technical colleges, which enroll about 274,000 students per year, are funded through a state aid, student tuition and fees and local property tax revenue. 

This local investment and engagement drive technical colleges’ responsiveness to, and alignment with, the diverse needs of Wisconsin’s workers, employers, and communities,” Foy said, adding that the amendment would reduce the accountability and responsiveness to local communities and employers. 

It’s unclear why the bill wasn’t considered on Wednesday.



originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F06%2F22%2Fassembly-passes-reading-literacy-contraceptive-and-alcohol-overhaul-bill%2F by Baylor Spears

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