COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio third-graders lagging in reading skills face the possibility of being held back for up to two school years under a sweeping overhaul of state education policy that cleared the state Legislature on Wednesday.
The so-called third-grade reading guarantee is modeled after an initially divisive Florida program that has helped improve students' reading skills there.
It's one of dozens of elements in the Ohio education bill that moved through the House and Senate on Wednesday and headed to Gov. John Kasich's desk.
The bill also makes way for greater use of technology across public education and creates state report cards for vocational and career programs that are tied to Ohio's job needs. The schools will work in consultation with career-technical education groups to set standards for the report cards.
In addition, the bill begins the process of building a statewide birth-to-third-grade literacy education strategy, requires eye exams for special needs students, and adjusts training and retesting requirements for teachers who are deemed ineffective for two of the previous three years.
Kasich, a first-term Republican who championed many of the bill's reforms, praised lawmakers for passing the legislation.
The governor even took the unusual step of making an appearance in the Senate chamber to deliver his thanks for legislators' efforts on the education bill and a host of other successful bills containing his initiatives.
"Addressing the full arc of Ohio's education, training, and workforce development needs in an interconnected way helps us align our resources more strategically to help produce better results -- better prepared students, better training for workers, and a better workforce for job creators," Kasich said in a statement.
House Democratic Leader Armond Budish, a Beachwood Democrat, said the third-grade reading guarantee asks too much of school districts already hit by budget and staffing cuts. He said the bill allots only $13 million to address lagging readers, though the program will require hundreds of millions of dollars to implement.
"It's an unfunded mandate that could actually harm children," Budish said. "This bill sets standards that, without additional help, many kids will not be able to meet. Kids could be held back and labeled a failure."
He said extra teachers, tutors, a longer school day, all-day kindergarten and special reading programs are among resources needed to improve reading scores among third graders.
The program requires third graders to meet a certain "cut score" in order to move on to fourth grade.
More than half of Ohio third-graders tested in October -- 59 percent -- achieved at least a proficient score on the state test, according to preliminary Department of Education results. That was up from the previous two years, but below all four years before that. More than 67 percent of Ohio third-graders passed the state reading test administered in October 2008, the highest level since 2005.
Almost 19 percent of Ohio third-graders who most recently took the reading test scored at the basic level, which falls just below proficient, and more than 22 percent fell in the lowest rung of limited.