PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to end "social promotion'' of students in school.

On a voice vote Thursday, the House gave preliminary approval to legislation requiring students be held back if they don't meet the required criteria. It also would mandate that high school teachers fail students who don't meet the course requirements.

The move came over the objections of Democrats who questioned whether that would do more harm than good.

"Once you hold a student back you increase the likelihood they will drop out,'' said Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen. And Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, said it amount to "destroying the lives'' of students because the failure of the state to properly fund education has resulted in many classrooms staffed by uncertified teachers.

"The state should be accountable for fully funding education, filling all of those teacher vacancies with certified, highly qualified teachers, and thereby giving the students everything they possibly need to succeed,'' she said.

"It's not about the money,'' responded Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, the architect of the legislation.

"What this bill does is when there are kids who fail to meet the standards it gives them a second opportunity to grasp that they need to know to succeed in life,'' Fillmore said.

"It's also going to take and give our kids a head's up that there are no more social promotions, no more easy rides, that there is responsibility in this world,'' he continued. "And those kids will be given a chance with this bill.''

Fillmore said the way he sees things, the education practices of the last 40 years are not working.

"Our education system is declining,'' he said.

"Our children are not being educated,'' Fillmore continued. "And self-esteem programs that sociologically people want to promote are not the thing.''

The answer, he said, is making kids take responsibility for their own learning. "They are like sponges wanting to learn.''

Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, criticized the hard-and-fast rule the legislation would create. She said it presumes that teachers — and parents — cannot be trusted to determine what is best on a case-by-case basis.

Fillmore doesn't see it that way.

"It enables the teacher to have another opportunity for that kid who is not achieving the standards necessary for him to be successful in life to be given a second chance to learn that that he needs to know,'' he said. And Fillmore said it provides an opportunity for teachers to identify the kids with problems.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said he was surprised that foes of the legislation were concerned that students would have to repeat a class.

"Well, if you stop and think about that, if they didn't learn it the first time they probably need to be taught the same thing again,'' he said.

"We are setting them up for failure,'' agreed Rep. Michelle Udall, D-Mesa about social promotion. She said it makes no sense to try to teach a child high school algebra if he or she can't do fractions.

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, who said she hasn't made a final decision on the issue, provided a more personal perspective.

She told the story of her son whose reading skills were delayed because he had hearing problems as a child. Yet his fourth grade teacher sought to promote him to the fifth grade even though he was reading at a second-grade level.

Osborne said she had to fight with school officials to have him retained. She told colleagues it worked, with her son now a graduate of Northern Arizona University.

The legislation, which needs a final House vote before going to the Senate, does have an escape clause of sorts.

It says exceptions to the no-promotion rule can be made if the student is a "limited English proficient student'' who has had fewer than two years of English language instruction if the teacher and parent agree that promotion is "appropriate.''

Exceptions also can be made for students in special education programs if the parent and teaching team assigned to that child agree.

Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has reported on state government and legal affairs in Arizona since 1982, the last 25 for Capitol Media Services which he founded in 1991.

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