Mandatory dyslexia screening clears major hurdle in Newsom budget

May 12, 2023

Before pandemic upended education, Gov. Newsom reads to kindergartners at the Washington Elementary School in Sacramento in March 2019.

After years of fierce debate, mandatory dyslexia screening is significantly closer to reality for California schools.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his budget revision released Friday, set aside $1 million for teacher training and a requirement that schools screen all children in kindergarten through second grade for risks of dyslexia and other reading disorders, beginning in 2025-26.

The budget is subject to final approval by the Legislature by mid-June, but Newsom seemed confident that dyslexia screening would survive last-minute political wrangling.

“I’m not worried about this stalling. We’re going to get it done this time,” Newsom said Friday, noting that he himself struggles with dyslexia and is “deeply engaged in the subject.”

California is one of only 10 states nationwide that does not screen students for dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects up to 1 in 5 students. Even though 60% of California’s third-graders are not reading at grade level, the teachers union and English learner advocates had vehemently opposed mandatory screening, saying that students whose native language isn’t English could be wrongly identified as having dyslexia and unnecessarily placed in special education.

Newsom addressed those fears on Friday. He said that the screening tool being developed at UC San Francisco will be available in numerous languages and take into account students’ cultural and linguistic differences. The UCSF tool, he said, would be state-of-the-art.

“I’m excited about what California will export to other states,” he said. “It’s not just about being one of the other states, it’s about being the best among other states.”

The budget calls for a panel to meet next year to review several tests, including the UCSF test, and offer schools a choice. Schools would have time to train teachers to administer the test, which would flag students who are at risk of having dyslexia.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Burbank, who has pushed for mandatory screening for years, said he was “ecstatic” at Newsom’s decision to prioritize dyslexia screening in the budget. Portantino, who also has dyslexia, in February introduced SB 691, which would have screened students beginning in 2024-25, a year earlier than Newsom’s proposal. That bill will now not be necessary, he said.

“I am extremely happy. This is a great day for kids in California,” Portantino said Friday. “The governor had it right. He and I both understand the urgency of this issue. And I think we’ve ironed out the safeguards to ensure that the (test) will be linguistically and culturally sensitive.”

Dyslexia advocates cheered Newsom’s decision.

“We have been fighting for this for so long. We’re really excited to see this move forward,” said Megan Potente, co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia California. “There’s a lot of momentum.”

Students with dyslexia need extra help learning to match letters to sounds. The sooner they get that help, the sooner they can catch up to their peers, research shows. And the longer schools wait, the harder it is for students to overcome and the more expensive interventions become.

Megan Bacigalupi, an Oakland parent and founder of California Parent Power, said that mandatory dyslexia screening is long overdue.

“Sitting here as a parent of a dyslexic child who was not screened early and will likely struggle in school for much of his life because of that, today means a great deal to me and all the families that will benefit,” she said.

The California Teachers Association, which for years has opposed mandatory screening, appeared to soften its stance on Friday. The longer timeline for implementation and extra money to train teachers made the difference, union President E. Toby Boyd said Friday.

“We appreciate the governor hearing the concerns educators have expressed for the last few years and for including funding to properly address early literacy screening, including dyslexia, in a manner that provides a realistic implementation timeline, professional development for educators and thoughtful policy that benefits students,” Boyd said.

English learner advocates also appeared ready to move forward with the screening requirement, at least for now.

“We appreciate the more comprehensive view on screening with a focus on reading difficulties, not just at risk of dyslexia, but look forward to reviewing the trailer bill language for details, especially how it affects our English learners,” said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, which advocates for English learners in California schools.

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