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How Bill Cassidy, Senate’s New GOP Education Leader, Aims to Put Focus on Students With Reading Disabilities

As the new ed committee ranking member looks to use his platform, his wife’s school for kids with dyslexia struggles under Louisiana’s grading system

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, is expected to bring more attention to dyslexia in his role as ranking member of the education committee. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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At 4, Kate Cassidy didn’t know the alphabet. In first grade, she still couldn’t read. Testing identified her as a “struggling reader” — a diagnosis that was “of no help,” said Dr. Laura Cassidy, Kate’s mother and the wife of Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

Kate was ultimately diagnosed with dyslexia, and the ensuing years of private school and tutors it took to get her the help she needed shaped the lives of both her parents. In Baton Rouge, Laura opened a charter school for students with dyslexia. In Washington, the moderate Republican advocates for changes in federal policy. 

Now ranking member of the Senate education committee, Sen. Cassidy has a powerful perch from which to draw attention to a reading disability that affects an estimated one in five Americans. “At some point you’ve got to concede that the status quo is not working,” he told The 74. “If you look at reading scores, they’ve not budged.”

But student achievement hasn’t budged much at Louisiana Key Academy either. The school, which Laura Cassidy co-founded in 2013, has never earned higher than an F in the state’s school grading system. Its performance score this year — based mostly on state test results — is 39.9, compared to a statewide average of 77.1.

Sen. Bill Cassidy and Dr. Laura Cassidy have both made helping students with dyslexia a central part of their work. (Courtesy of Dr. Laura Cassidy)

At the same time, the school has won praise for providing targeted, foundational literacy instruction for students who were grade levels behind in their traditional schools. Parents whose children failed to develop reading skills in district schools, even with special education, have watched them gain confidence and earn good grades at Key. The state board recently granted the charter approval to expand to two additional sites and add a high school. 

“There is huge demand for Key Academy,” said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. But though the school is clearly filling a void, officials shouldn’t let up on holding charters like Key accountable for students’ progress, she said.

“We will never say choice is enough,” she said. Academic improvement should also be the objective, she said, bluntly adding that it’s important for schools to find “the balance between the power of choice [and] the expectation that the goal is to suck less.”

Teacher Ashley Henry helps a student at Louisiana Key Academy. The staff has received special training to work with dyslexic students. (Louisiana Key Academy)

The earlier, the better 

At a time of heightened interest in how children learn to read, the Cassidys’ combined work demonstrates the challenges — and also, the paradoxes — facing families with dyslexic children and the schools they attend.

To Laura Cassidy, a retired surgeon, the F on the state’s report card is not a reflection of dyslexic students’ ability to learn. Many arrive in third, fourth and fifth grade when parents realize they aren’t catching up with their peers. 

“After January, most traditional schools teach to the [state test], and we don’t do that. We’re trying to produce fluent readers,” she said. “The earlier they come to our school, the better because they’re in an environment where they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m not the only one who was struggling with this and I’m not stupid.’ ” 

Despite the F, the school earns a B from the state for student progress. Its performance score has increased since 2019 when it was 36.3. 

When their children are younger, many parents are more concerned with their improvement than hitting state proficiency targets, said DeJunné Clark Jackson, president of the nonprofit Center for Literacy and Learning, near New Orleans. But as they prepare for graduation, those grades tend to matter more,

“The reality is the school is swimming upstream,” said Jackson, also a leader of parent advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia Louisiana. But it’s “reaching parents in a place of desperation.”

Angela Normand hit that point when her son Max was in third grade. He was getting D’s and F’s in reading at his school in Tangipahoa Parish, about 40 miles from Baton Rouge. Teachers told her that boys sometimes learn to read more slowly than girls. But even with special education, he didn’t improve.

He entered Key Academy in January 2020, and within two months, “he was reading every sign on every building,” she said. Despite remote learning through the end of the school year, Max’s reading skills grew stronger. Now in sixth grade, he has five A’s and one B. 

She said the “unfair, inaccurate grade” the state gives the school has probably deterred other parents from exploring whether Key Academy can help their children.

Angela Normand enrolled her son Max in Louisiana Key Academy when he was in sixth grade after special education services failed to help him become a better reader. (Courtesy of Angela Normand)

‘The plight of families’

The low grade hasn’t hurt state support. When the school first renewed its charter in 2018, the board added an additional way to evaluate schools that serve students well below grade level. While Key Academy students must still take the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, the schools also give additional standardized tests that measure students’ phonological, fluency and vocabulary skills.

State accountability systems “are not set up to deal with a school like this,” said John White, former Louisiana state superintendent. The adults responsible for Key Academy’s students, he added, “were not the adults who were there for the origin of the students’ struggles.”

He credited the Cassidys for simultaneously “drawing attention to the plight of families” whose children have dyslexia and advancing school choice. 

A second school opened this year in Covington, east of Baton Rouge, despite opposition from the local St. Tammany Parish district, where there has never been a charter. A third site will open in Shreveport next year. An October report from the state board, supporting the expansion, said the charter offers “compelling evidence” for its model and would provide something that doesn’t otherwise exist in that area.

The Cassidys, meanwhile, have advocated for reforms that would impact all Louisiana schools, including 2018 state legislation that recognizes training in dyslexia therapy in teacher licensing. 

‘Not blue or red’

At the federal level, Sen. Cassidy— still a practicing gastroenterologist — focuses on some of the same thorny issues facing dyslexic students. He demonstrated his awareness of those challenges during a committee hearing last summer on pandemic learning loss.

“Did they fall further behind than their peers?” he asked Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker about students with reading disabilities. “Do you screen children for dyslexia?” 

And he introduced legislation in 2021 that would make dyslexia a separate disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Currently, it’s part of a larger “specific learning disability” category. The change, he said, would draw more attention to dyslexia and help ensure students get help earlier, especially since 10 states don’t require screening.

But his bill faces resistance from some special education advocates. Denise Marshall, CEO of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said learning disabilities “tend to co-occur” and that removing dyslexia from that category might cause educators to miss other needs.

White, Louisiana’s former state superintendent, hopes Sen. Cassidy’s role on the committee will also prompt conversation about foundational reading skills at a time when states and districts have federal relief funds to train teachers and purchase curriculum.

“Now,” he said, “would be an opportunity for some leadership in Washington to say, ‘Lets connect the dots.’ ” 

Sen. Cassidy said Sen. Bernie Sanders, the committee chair, will set the agenda. But he hopes to work with Democrats on the issue, mentioning Sen. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, who has been open about own struggles with dyslexia, and Sen. Maggie Hassan, who signed a dyslexia screening law in 2016 when she was governor of New Hampshire.

“This issue is not blue or red,” Sen. Cassidy said. “This is, ‘Do I care about a child achieving potential even if the child learns differently?’ I’d like to think that would give us a lot of common ground.”

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