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Region lawmakers express differing opinions about reading retention law

State Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) speaks at the launch of My Brother's Keeper Lake County on April 9.
Michael Gallenberger
Lakeshore Public Media
State Rep. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) speaks at the launch of My Brother's Keeper Lake County on April 9.

How to make sure kids are ready to learn and able to read continues to be debated by local leaders. A pair of Indiana Senate bills signed into law this session try to address those issues by boosting access to child care and holding back most third graders who can't pass the I-READ test.

State representative and longtime educator Dr. Vernon Smith (D-Gary) says retaining students should be the last resort, and it would be more productive to focus on prevention. "All we have for prevention, which are preschool programs, is pilots — a few pilots across the state. And we're sitting on $4 million, and we can use some of that to get to the root of the problem," Smith said during last week's launch of My Brother's Keeper Lake County, part of a nationwide initiative to address opportunity gaps that exist for young men of color.

The tone was different when lawmakers gave a legislative recap during last week's Schererville Town Council meeting. Senator Dan Dernulc (R-Highland) argued that retention comes with a lot of guardrails, including consideration for students with dyslexia and intervention during summer school.

"I wouldn't say it's the best remedy, but it's the remedy that we have right now," Dernulc told council members. "We'll see how that goes."

He noted that not being able to read could lead to additional problems.

Still, others think the state could do more to advance early learning. Senate Bill 2 tries to make child care more available, partly by reducing regulations on providers. But My Brother's Keeper Lake County Vice Chair Dr. Steve Simpson says it doesn't give enough financial help to schools with the most challenges.

"Where are the funds in Senate Bill 2, and how do we get to them?" Simpson asked during last week's event.

Representative Smith also criticized the state's lack of mandatory kindergarten.

Michael Gallenberger is a news reporter and producer that hosts All Things Considered on 89.1 FM | Lakeshore Public Media.