Inside the Colorado state Capitol Feb. 5, 2019.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

 A new bill making its way through the state Capitol aims to better train teachers to help struggling readers. But advocates for children with dyslexia say the bill doesn’t go far enough to address the real problem and the most vulnerable students.

The proposal, SB19-199, would update the READ Act, which the state poured $231 million into back in 2012. The law called for more screenings and interventions for young students, to hopefully catch reading issues before the critical third grade point.

A lot of Colorado kids are already languishing. Six out of 10 cannot read at grade level. Research has found students behind in literacy are more likely to drop out, end up in prison and develop feelings of low-self worth and other mental health issues.

However, in the five years since the READ Act was enacted, the number of kids who have significant reading deficiencies has actually gone up slightly. Now advocates worry this update would only spend more money to little effect.

Some lawmakers, including state Sen. Nancy Todd, push back on the claim that the original READ Act hasn't done enough

"I would not say that all the money that has been spent from the read act has gone down the drain. I think there are some very strong success stories. The problem was we don't know what those success stories are," Todd said.

At a Thursday hearing, the Senate Education committee heard testimony that often became emotional as parents took the mic.

"These children testified in the dyslexia bill that they have hurt themselves, that they have thought of suicide. There was a parent who discussed her child's bald spot where she pulled her hair out because she couldn't read. She still has it," said Karin Johnson, a parent with the group Colorado Kids Identified with Dyslexia. "These children are what I hope you keep in the forefront of your mind as you consider this bill moving forward."

What's it like to be dyslexic? This teacher works her way through a simulation.

(Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

The new READ Act bill calls for an independent evaluator to report on each district's strategy and success rates. School districts must select intervention tools from state education-department approved tools and, if they receive READ Act money, most prove by 2021-22 that all early grade teachers have reading training.

The bill also shifts money around to train teachers on better reading methods, as well as fund more interventionists.In the past, districts have used READ ACT money for other purposes. The update would introduce new accountability checks.

"There are many districts who've been using this money for various other aspects. We know that. I just want to make sure that we are clearly sending a message that we will hold everyone accountable for being able to teach reading and teaching reading," state Sen. and bill sponsor Bob Rankin said.

A major group with concerns about the new READ Act are parents of children with dyslexia. The current system doesn't catch most kids with dyslexia, leaving many without a diagnosis as they face a life at greater risk of mental illness and dropping out of school.

It also does not know how to teach students with dyslexia how to read. Many schools don't use the evidence-based explicit, systematic, sequential phonics-based approach, which works for all children.

That language is critically absent from the bill. Education groups have been pushing against including it from behind the scenes. Some don't think it's necessary or the best way to teach reading, despite decades of scientific evidence.

"I think that reading is, it's somewhat organic in nature and just like you can't dictate or tell how a plant is going to grow. It's very difficult to force or dictate any sort of reading on a child. and so I would hesitate to be that forceful in terms of being very prescriptive on it," said Kevin Vick, the vice president of the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Advocates also aren't pleased that another part of the bill's first draft was stripped after lobbying pressure. It would have required teachers and classroom aids to get a certification in reading instruction. 

"The science of reading is very clear and it's not a language, it's not balanced literacy. It is structured literacy. It is explicit, it's systematic and it has direct instruction. And our teachers for the most part do not have that expertise," parent Cali Nichols said. Her son in college with dyslexia still reads at a fifth-grade level. "There's a huge gap about with the science and what is happening in the classroom. And until we bridge that gap and nothing is going to change."

Not all advocacy groups stand opposed to the new READ Act. Stand For Children Colorado has run two reports analyzing the inadequacies of the old law. The organization believes if the update is properly implemented and emphasizes training and literacy coaches, it could be effective.

"And I think that increasing that focus in this state will, will help teachers feel more expert in the science of reading and help readers, especially the most struggling," Stand For Children Colorado's Government Affairs Director Amy Pitlik said.

After clearing the Senate Education Committee, the new READ Act is on its way to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Joint Budget Committee has already set aside money for the bill, but with the expectation of more changes and more lobbying.