A bill that would recommend holding back kids in school if they can't read by third grade won initial approval in the Colorado House on Tuesday in a debate that split Democrats.

House Bill 1238 doesn't mandate holding functionally illiterate children back, but it does require schools to measure reading progress from kindergarten through third grade and hold discussions between teachers, principals and parents on whether to hold back a child.

Ultimately, the decision on whether to hold a child back a grade would rest with the school district superintendent.

Bipartisan supporters of the bill said it was a modest step toward improving early childhood literacy in Colorado, critical for reducing dropout rates and increasing college readiness. But opponents of the bill said retention was an unproven tactic and that the legislation imposed yet another unfunded mandate on teachers and schools.

"Retention is not the best policy for children," said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, the bill's most vocal opponent and a career teacher. "We know kids that are retained are more likely to drop out of school, are more likely to get in trouble with the law. Time and time again we have heard it is not the best strategy."

Rep. Cherilyn Peniston, D-Westminster, a retired teacher, said the bill was just the latest move by lawmakers in recent years to require more of schools while giving less money each year.

"We have made massive reform changes to our education system," Peniston said, "and to come back this year and have another massive bill, unfunded mandate is something at this point, for my district, I cannot support."

And though opponents of the bill said it would disproportionately affect ethnic minorities, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who is black, and Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, who is Latino, argued in favor of it.

"As far as I'm concerned, this bill is about closing the reading achievement gap in the state of Colorado," Fields said. "In the state of Colorado, we have a problem, and the problem is centered around reading. We can no longer continue to do what we do. We have to put a focus on reading, and it has to start in kindergarten through third grade."

Ramirez said that while retention may not always be the answer, the conversation must be required.

"I was that poor minority child growing up," he said. "If it weren't for that threat of being held up, I might not have put that extra effort forward so that I could move on to the next grade."

Solano unsuccessfully attempted to remove all language referring to retention in the bill. However, supporters themselves softened language in the bill to say that students with reading deficiencies should only move to the next grade if they are "likely to be able to maintain academic progress at the next grade."

The House gave the bill first-round approval on a voice vote and still must take a recorded vote on it before it can move to the Senate.

Tim Hoover: 303-954-1626 or thoover@denverpost.com