Gov. Tony Evers signs the Wisconsin 2023-25 biennial budget on July 5, 2023, in the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. (Drake White-Bergey / Wisconsin Watch)
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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill into law Wednesday overhauling the way reading is taught in the state.

The Republican-authored bill is meant to improve sagging reading scores and emphasizes phonics, the relationship between sounds and letters, over memorization. It also requires more frequent reading tests and employs reading coaches to help struggling students.

“We have to ensure our kids have the reading and literacy tools and skills to be successful both in and out of the classroom,” Evers said in a statement. “This bill, modeled after initiatives that have been successful in other states and fine-tuned with significant changes throughout the legislative process, is a step in the right direction.”

Evers, a Democrat, and the state Department of Public Instruction initially opposed the bill over a requirement that low-scoring third-graders repeat reading classes. That measure was changed to put low-scoring students in a remedial program with mandatory summer reading courses.

The department worked with Republican lawmakers for months to create the plan, which passed both chambers of the GOP-controlled Legislature last month with some bipartisan support.

Evers, who was state superintendent before he became governor, called Wednesday for the Legislature to also pass other investments in public education.

Only about a third of Wisconsin fourth graders scored high enough to be considered proficient readers in 2022, marking a 20-year low, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The bill Evers signed into law requires students in kindergarten through third grade to complete three reading tests a year, up from just one currently. Those tests will be used to more quickly identify struggling students and get them extra help.

The plan applies to public schools and private schools that receive funding through Wisconsin’s school choice voucher programs. Republicans already set aside $50 million in the state budget for new curriculum materials, teacher training and hiring reading coaches.

Evers vetoed a similar bill last year because it did not include enough funding.

A nationwide push to embrace similar teaching methods has gained ground as lawmakers look to address learning losses attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Wisconsin’s bill is modeled after literacy laws in Mississippi, sometimes referred to as the “Mississippi miracle,” because the changes led to dramatic improvements in the state’s reading scores over the past decade.

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Harm Venhuizen is a state government reporter with The Associated Press in Madison, Wisconsin, primarily covering elections and voting rights. Prior to this, Venhuizen interned at Military Times. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he served as editor-in-chief of Chimes, the student paper. During his time at Chimes, he earned recognition for his investigative coverage of controversial personnel decisions, sexual assault and university employment policies against same-sex marriage. Venhuizen grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin, and spent a summer working as a wildfire firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service.