Dyslexia bills signed, work awaits
But getting the bills signed could prove the easy part. A host of challenges remain to be met to make those improvements stick.
And What may be the most consequential bill - one that would require screening of all first graders for dyslexia and other reading disorders - remains pending in the Legislature, its passage by no means assured.
"That's a big one, and where we need to work next," said State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), the primary sponsor of the bills in the Senate.
Dyslexia, the most recognized of reading problems, is a neurological disorder often characterized by difficulties in recognizing and decoding words, leading to lower comprehension and fluency.
No precise count is available, but some estimates say as many as one in 10 people may be dyslexic, and even one in five people may show symptoms.
Despite the prevalence of dyslexia, the laws signed by Christie last week for the first time prominently address the problem in state statute and regulation, making it a requirement for districts to deal with the disorder.
On Wednesday, Christie signed a law that requires districts to provide at least two hours of training in dyslexia and other reading disorders to every general education teacher in grades pre-K through 3 and special education and reading teachers.
On Friday, he signed a second law that requires the International Dyslexia Association definition of the disorder to be specifically written into special education code as one of the disabilities that must be recognized.
"No longer will anyone in a school be able to say there is no such thing as dyslexia or how they don't recognize it," Van Drew said. "This sets the foundation for everything else."
Liz Barnes, a founding member of Decoding Dyslexia NJ, a parent advocacy group, called it a "good first step."
"We hope it will lay the groundwork for what will be a series of changes," she said. "This should open the conversation and tell districts they can't look a parent in the face and tell them dyslexia doesn't exist."
Putting dyslexia into law and code doesn't guarantee that services will suddenly be made available in the most effective instructional practices.
"Simply adding more language to the state code will not guarantee effective, evidence-based services or early intervention," said Brenda Considine, a parent advocate who testified on the bills.
"Parents will still have to be active advocates and work with their districts to ensure that reading programs are appropriate," she said.
Barnes said the precise wording of the regulations will also be critical, with the state Board of Education being the next step in that process. New code can take as much as six months or longer to complete.
Worries about cost continue as well.
The screening bill that has passed the Senate but not the Assembly has largely been stalled due to concerns about the cost to districts. A fiscal analysis by legislative staff said the evaluation instruments alone could cost up to $20 per student, or $1.8 million statewide, and the additional personnel time needed an additional $4 million.
That bill had initially called for every kindergartner to be screened, but has since been revised to cover every first grader.
Read more of John Mooney's education coverage at njspotlight.com