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Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland holds a reading intervention session Wednesday, January 23, 2019 with kindergarteners at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado education officials botched a reading-improvement program that cost the state $231 million over the past six years by caving in to political pressure from local school districts, a whistleblower lawsuit contended.

Testimony in the case mirrors current criticism as reform of the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act rises to the top of this year’s legislative agenda amid stagnant reading gains.

Dian Prestwich’s suit claimed state education officials fired her for disclosing flaws in how they set up what is more commonly known as the READ Act. Denver District Court Judge Edward Bronfin last February dismissed her claims, finding that the state’s whistleblower law did not provide protections.

Despite the judge’s dismissal, the case brought by Prestwich, former assistant director of the Colorado Department of Education’s office of literacy, provides a front-row seat to the intense infighting over one of the most significant pieces of education legislation in Colorado in recent years that occurred largely outside the public’s view.

The testimony revealed furious behind-the-scenes debate about the state’s implementation of the READ Act. Tumult rose among state officials while local school districts applied significant political pressure over how best to interpret the legislation, that testimony further shows.

“She was a partisan in an internecine ‘battle’ within the CDE involving philosophy and policy,” Bronfin wrote in one ruling. “As a partisan, Dr. Prestwich became an vocal agitator within and to others on the periphery of CDE when decisions did not go her way.”

In a hallway clash after one contentious meeting, Denver Public Schools officials accused Prestwich of being a “liar,” according to testimony. In emails she sent to Colorado Board of Education member Debora Scheffel, Prestwich accused her superiors of violating state law by failing to ensure effective interventions were being used for struggling students, according to evidence submitted in the case.

Court testimony also revealed that Robert Hammond, the state’s education commissioner at that time, once called Prestwich into his office in December 2013 to tell her to stop voicing her concerns. She recalled that he told her during that meeting that he feared conflict could result in DPS officials pushing the legislature to repeal the READ Act in its entirety, although his memory was that he told her he feared that DPS merely would seek changes in the law.

“You have to lose some battles in order to win the war,” they both recalled Hammond telling her during the meeting.

Kindergarteners work together during a reading intervention session Wednesday, January 23, 2019 in Katie Hoiland’s kindergarten classroom at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using a competitive grant from the READ Act to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Much of Prestwich’s dispute revolved around her disagreement with her superiors’ push to allow school districts to test Spanish-speaking students for reading proficiency solely in Spanish. Spanish testing was a key policy goal for DPS officials who feared labeling Spanish-speaking students as deficient through English testing.

But Prestwich also alleged that the CDE made a key mistake and gave local school districts too much discretion in how they spent their READ Act funds. Similar concerns over local control surfaced at the state Capitol this year following reports that showed the READ Act has not produced significant gains in reading proficiency for young Colorado students.

Signed into law in 2012, the program delivers state aid to school districts to evaluate and improve the reading skills of students between kindergarten and third grade. It was supposed to ensure that all Colorado students would be able to read at their grade level by third grade.

State officials say they remain far behind that goal even as the annual cost of the READ Act has risen to $42.5 million. Just 40 percent of third-graders in Colorado are reading at their grade level now, barely up from the 38 percent who could do so four years ago.

MORE: Colorado spent $231 million to help young children catch up on reading. But rates of kids with significant deficiencies only worsened.

Also, the rate of Colorado students identified as having significant reading deficiencies has remained stagnant. In the 2012-13 school year, when the READ Act was passed, 16.5 percent of Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade were struggling with significant reading deficiencies. In the 2013-14 school year, identified by legislative budget analysts as the first year of consistent data collection under the READ Act, that rate improved to 14.4 percent. The rate was 15.5 percent last year.

State officials say part of the reason reading gains aren’t registering in the data is due to more school districts switching to more-sensitive reading-assessment tools in the 2016-17 school year. They also say more English learners and students with disabilities were added to the testing pool over the years.

Still, state officials say they’re not satisfied with the results. And legislators also are vowing to reform the program after a report by The Colorado Sun.

At stake is the academic fate of students with “significant reading deficiencies,” a technical term the state uses for students so far behind on their reading skills that they are in danger of never reading proficiently. If those students aren’t reading at their grade level by third grade, they are in danger of never learning to read and considered those most likely to drop out of school, research shows.

Lawmakers say they know the program has problems, but they’re not yet sure what to do.

The Colorado House of Representatives, pictured in September. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Last week, state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, said during a senate education committee hearing that he looked forward to working with state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, to come up with possible changes. Education Commissioner Katy Anthes last month told legislators in charge of writing the state budget that the Colorado Board of Education also has concerns and probably will weigh in soon.

Critics of the state’s implementation of the READ Act, including former state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Dillon who steered the legislation creating the program through the legislature in 2012, worry the state doesn’t demand enough accountability from school districts. Hamner and others fear school districts aren’t always using their READ Act funds to pay for effective reading interventions for struggling students.

That was a fear shared years ago by Prestwich, who was one of the state officials who worked from 2012 through early 2015 to get the READ Act up and running.

Testimony and evidence in her case show that Prestwich became controversial during her last two years with the state before she was fired in April 2015.

Some, including several state literacy education officials and members of advocacy groups, saw her as taking a principled stand against watering down state standards for the reading program included. Prestwich viewed state board member Scheffel as an ally and repeatedly relayed her concerns to Scheffel in the emails that became evidence in the lawsuit.

In a June 2014 email to Scheffel, Prestwich wrote that she and her team had “relentlessly pointed out” to Jill Hawley, then associate commissioner of achievement and strategy at the CDE, that the state was not following the statutory language of the READ Act.

The statute, Prestwich wrote, required the state to monitor how school districts planned to use their READ Act funds. Those funds, she continued, could only be provided to school districts if the state determined that the district planned to use them on evidence-based interventions. The state had drawn up a list of approved curriculum and interventions, but not all school districts were using those materials, she wrote in the email.

“We have not been allowed to put in place any kind of approval process other than the advisory list,” the email continued. “We specifically requested of (Hawley) that if districts chose to purchase anything not on the advisory list, they are supposed to provide a plan to us for the use of the funds for our approval. We were ignored.”

Her email went on to allege that the CDE was “breaking the law and allowing school districts to do so too! Talk about a lawsuit!”

Hawley, who is no longer with the CDE, denied Prestwich’s accusations in her testimony.  She said some materials were grandfathered in for use while formal reporting procedures were finalized. She added that some of the interventions, such as summer school or tutoring programs, did not require preapproval by the state. In other instances, the interventions were paid for with a school district’s general funds, over which CDE had no control, Hawley testified.

Prestwich’s backers included her former supervisor Patricia Montgomery. Montgomery testified that she resigned in disgust from her position as executive director of CDE’s office of literacy, in part because she was “done with politics and unethical behavior” and felt that CDE was always “cutting deals” with one school district or another. Montgomery also testified that she believed Prestwich was being made a sacrificial lamb, and that top officials at CDE had it out for her.

After Montgomery resigned, a new executive director of the state office of literacy was hired, Alisa Dorman, who fired Prestwich nearly a year later. Dorman said she did so in part because Prestwich failed to have a positive attitude and had difficulties in working with people who did not agree with her.

But some of Prestwich’s concerns over whether the state was properly overseeing how school districts spent their READ Act funds actually have proven prescient, according to interviews with state education officials.

Melissa Colsman, Colorado’s associate commissioner of student learning, said in an interview this week that CDE officials now acknowledge that implementation of the READ Act was flawed in one important respect. The state should have, from the beginning, monitored to make sure READ Act money was being spent by school districts on evidence-based interventions, she said.

Kindergartener Lea Wickham during a reading intervention session with teacher Katie Hoiland at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using a competitive grant from the READ Act to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colsman said it wasn’t until the 2016-17 school year that the department began forcing school districts to identify the interventions they planned to use. She said CDE that year also began requiring school districts that don’t use reading interventions that the state has deemed effective to explain why. Those districts must now work with state officials to come up with a plan that ensures compliance.

“The data collection in the READ Act is pretty substantial,” Colsman said, defending why it took years to correct the monitoring, which is required by state law. “And as is the case in any large initiative, we do take a few years to get all the data-collection pieces in place.”

Holding districts to the more stringent standard has forced some school districts to change practices, according to state data. In the 2017-18 school year, as the new monitoring took hold, four school districts were found out of compliance. Those districts came into compliance within weeks, according to the state.

Literacy advocates still are concerned that general reading curriculum for some of the state’s youngest students isn’t up to the best standards in all districts, Colsman said. But the state’s hands are tied when it comes to curriculum, she said. Unlike other states, like Texas, the Colorado constitution forbids lawmakers and the state school board from deciding which textbooks should be used in the public schools.