BOSTON — Most public schools in Massachusetts don't screen for dyslexia, despite research suggesting early intervention is key to treating the learning disability that affects 1 in 5 children in the state.
That will change under a proposal signed Friday by Gov. Charlie Baker, which would require the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to come up with guidelines for screening of students with at least one indicator for dyslexia or another neurological learning disability.
Advocates, who have lobbied for years for early childhood screening, praised the move as a step in the right direction.
"The reality is that every school should be screening for dyslexia," said Nancy Duggan, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, a national advocacy group. "It's a huge problem here and nationally, and we know that identifying kids early means helping them before they fail."
Duggan said many children go undiagnosed because dyslexia isn't recognized as a disorder in Massachusetts and many other states.
Even when diagnosed, kids often don’t receive the services they need because there is no statewide framework for dealing with dyslexia, she said.
The bill, which combines proposals filed by Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, was approved last week by the House and Senate.
"No child should be sitting in a classroom struggling to keep pace and feeling frustrated or depressed because they have dyslexia that hasn't been properly identified and addressed," Tarr said. "Detection of dyslexia as early as possible in a student's educational career can prevent that from happening, and this bipartisan legislation will foster screening at a systemic, rather than episodic, level."
Besides screening, the legislation will require school districts to train teachers on the learning disability, its signs and intervention strategies.
It also requires schools to adopt "evidence-based dyslexia remediation" programs.
Dyslexia is language-based learning disability. Individuals with dyslexia often have trouble organizing language, spelling and learning letters and their sounds.
Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population have a reading disability; of those, as many as 85 percent are believed to have dyslexia.
Under federal law, students with dyslexia qualify for special education services, but advocates are pushing Congress to provide more resources for early screening and intervention.
In Massachusetts, education officials say they treat dyslexia as a general learning disability and currently don't screen for it specifically.
The state does provide special education for students diagnosed with dyslexia. But services vary, and parents and districts often must pay for programs outside schools.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said his group didn't take a position on the proposal but is concerned about the financial impact. He noted it doesn't include additional state funding for screening or special education programs, which are already underfunded.
"We don't oppose it, but we've raised concerns about the cost implications of another unfunded mandate," he said. "It could place an additional financial burden on school districts."
The state's formula for funding school districts, known as the foundation budget, is based on an assumption that at least 15 percent of students will need special education services for at least a quarter of each school year. It anticipates a flat 3.75 percent increase in every district's expected costs each year.
While the plan was supposed to be recalculated every four years to reflect changes in costs, education advocates say that hasn't happened.
Three years ago, a report by a state commission set up to study the issue found the original formula underestimated costs by up to $2 billion per year. The report made a series of recommendations to overhaul the foundation budget.
Earlier this year, the House and Senate approved plans to increase funding but were unable to agree on a final plan before they recessed on July 31.
Baker has increased Chapter 70 education funding in recent years, but that hasn't changed how the pool of money is distributed.
Lisa Nelson, a Groton advocate whose daughter has dyslexia, argues that the proposal won't require additional funding but will go a long way to help identify children with the disability.
"The earlier you identify what is going on, the less of an impact it will have on a child's educational outcome," said Nelson, a co-founder of the state chapter of Decoding Dyslexia. "The longer you wait, the harder it becomes."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.