A new plan by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who struggled with dyslexia as a child, would pay for more screenings and services for the thousands of California students with dyslexia — a condition that advocates say has not received enough attention in schools.
The California Dyslexia Initiative, which the governor announced last week as part of his 2020-21 budget proposal, would set aside $4 million for screening, professional learning for teachers, research and a conference on dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects one’s ability to read and write. Although the amount is small compared to the overall education budget, it lays the groundwork for future investment and brings much-needed attention to the issue, advocates said.
“This is a very big deal. It’s fantastic news,” said Megan Potente, co-educator outreach manager for Decoding Dyslexia California, an advocacy group that lobbies for better dyslexia services in schools. “Gov. Newsom is bringing more attention to dyslexia than we have seen in decades.”
Dyslexia is a genetic brain condition that ranges from mild to severe, and affects all racial and ethnic groups. Children with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read and write, and often fall behind academically even though the condition has nothing to do with intelligence, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Although there’s no cure, dyslexia can be overcome by learning alternate ways to read. About 20 percent of the population has some degree of dyslexia, often undiagnosed, according to the International Dyslexia Association.
When dyslexia is not addressed, students can become disengaged with school, develop behavior problems and are more likely to drop out. About half of inmates in U.S. prisons have serious difficulty reading, in many cases due to dyslexia, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education.
But if identified early, children with dyslexia can learn alternative ways to read. Reading might always be a struggle, but they can keep up with their classmates and even excel, said Kathy Futterman, an education lecturer at Cal State East Bay who sat on the state’s dyslexia guidelines committee.
“The earlier you can intervene, the better chance you have at closing the gap,” she said.
Currently, few schools in California routinely test students for dyslexia, said Pamela Cohen, a parent in Los Angeles Unified who’s a longtime advocate for better screening and support for dyslexic children. Whether a dyslexic student receives services at school depends on whether their teacher notices the condition, a school psychologist assesses it and a tutor or teacher provides services to help the student overcome the disability. Most schools lack the resources to identify, diagnose and provide services for all students who need it, Cohen said.
The result is that more affluent parents pay for private screening and tutoring, which can cost between $50 and $200 an hour, while lower-income families might not even know their child has dyslexia at all.
“It’s a civil rights issue,” Cohen said. “I might be able to dig into my pockets for years of tutoring, but what about the thousands of kids whose parents don’t have the resources?”
Newsom has often spoken of his own struggles with dyslexia, which he was diagnosed with at age 5 but didn’t learn he had until later in elementary school, he said. He struggled with reading and writing throughout school but eventually managed to thrive academically by finding other ways to absorb information, such as memorization and diligent note-taking. As lieutenant governor and now governor, he’s strongly advocated for special education, especially programs aimed at helping students with learning disabilities.
“I’m passionate about special ed. I think most of you know that because I was one of them growing up,” he said during his budget announcement in January. “It’s a miracle that I’m here. As someone who struggled with speech and someone that struggled academically, I had remarkable people that intervened. And (because of them) I’m standing at this podium.”
The California Dyslexia Initiative would be run through a county office of education, which in turn would hire a university to research the best screening and teaching methods for children with dyslexia. The county office would also create partnerships with districts and charter schools throughout the state, and host a statewide conference for educators and researchers.
Funds would also be set aside for teachers’ professional learning, technical assistance for districts and stipends for teachers to attend the conference. The state would select the county office to run the program by September, and the conference would be held by January 2021.
The initiative is the latest in a string of recent state and private investments in addressing dyslexia, including three new research centers at the University of California.
At UCLA, the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners and Social Justice will study the links between literacy and equity among children who have access to tutoring and those who don’t. The UC San Francisco Dyslexia Center focuses on neuroscience research and works directly with teachers and schools. Financier Charles Schwab, who was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 40, in September donated $20 million to establish a joint dyslexia research project at UCSF and UC Berkeley.
At the K-12 level, the U.S. Department of Education in September awarded California a $37.5 million grant for literacy programs, which advocates are lobbying the state to use to benefit students with dyslexia. And in 2017, the California Department of Education adopted California Dyslexia Guidelines, a 136-page detailed outline on the best way for schools to help students with dyslexia. The guidelines are not mandatory, though, so implementation is up to each school.
And last year, Newsom’s budget included $3.5 million for an early intervention dyslexia pilot program at UC San Francisco.
Advocates have been pushing for years to screen all kindergartners for dyslexia and provide tutoring if needed, Futterman said. They’ve also been pushing for schools to teach reading in a way that’s easier for students with dyslexia to grasp, with a focus on sounds rather than whole words.
Identifying and helping students early can save money in the long run, because those students could avoid referrals to special education and ultimately do better in school, said Nancy Redding, a learning disability specialist who’s on the advisory board of the International Dyslexia Association of Northern California. Currently, about 37 percent of students in special education in California have a learning disability, usually dyslexia, according to the California Department of Education.
“Early screening and effective teaching methods — which are helpful for all students, including English learners — can drop our special education caseloads dramatically,” Redding said. “In the long run, the state will save money.”
Redding said the most promising part of Newsom’s initiative is the emphasis on professional learning for teachers, both for existing teachers and those in credential programs. Despite the surge in research, very little has changed in the way teachers address dyslexia on a day-to-day basis, Potente and others said.
“Teachers want to help,” Redding said. “They see students in their classrooms every year who are not learning to read and write as they should, but teachers have not been trained in recognizing the signs and symptoms of dyslexia.”
The initiative might not change dyslexia services in California overnight, but Newsom deserves credit for bringing attention to the issue and devoting funds to students with learning disabilities, who’ve long been ignored in public schools, she said.
“This initiative by Gov. Newsom will only make the outlook brighter for the many thousands of students in California public schools who have dyslexia and just want to be taught in a way that works for them,” Redding said.