SC lawmakers push for statewide 4-year-old kindergarten

A vital start to prepare youngsters for school or an unnecessary expense?

jself@thestate.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Expanding 4K By the numbers 60,000 Number of 4-year-olds in South Carolina 50.7 percent Percentage of those 4-year-olds who now attend some form of publicly funded 4-year-old kindergarten $94.2 million The amount in public money that was spent on 4K education in South Carolina in 2010-11, including $35.6 million from the state (excludes $41 million from federal Head Start) $100 million Estimated cost to S.C. taxpayers to expand 4K statewide, according to a sponsor of a bill to do that

— On Friday, 4-year-olds at Clemson Road Child Development Center played with fake snow, built castles and romped on the playground, complete with a miniature race track and performance theater.

The children also take monthly field trips and listen to visitors give presentations, says lead teacher Debbie Brady.

“We’re trying to get them out doing things,” Brady said, adding experiencing new things – a key part in education – helps the 4-year-olds learn. Not all children get those experiences at home, she added.

Of South Carolina’s 60,000 4-year-olds, 50.7 percent attend some form of publicly funded 4-year-old kindergarten. But if a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate have their way, more 4-years-olds could go to kindergarten.

The cost? Roughly $100 million more to S.C. taxpayers, one lawmaker estimates.

That amount already is spent in the state each year on 4K education. In 2010-2011, an estimated $94.2 million in public money, including $35.6 million from the state, was spent on 4-year-old kindergarten, according to S.C. First Steps, the state program that focuses on early-childhood education and oversees private 4K programs that receive state support. That excludes an estimated $41 million spent from the federal Head Start program.

Twin bills in the state Senate and S.C. House – sponsored by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – would expand full-day kindergarten statewide to 4-year-olds who come from low-income families.

But not everyone agrees the state needs more 4-year-old kindergarten programs.

State Education Superintendent Mick Zais does not support any expansion, unconvinced the programs produce any lasting benefits, said spokesman Jay Ragley.

‘Leadership and intestinal fortitude’

Sheheen and Smith want to make permanent and expand the state’s Child Development Education Pilot Program.

That program, launched in 2006, was the state’s response to a 2005 Circuit Court ruling that said the state should spend more on early-childhood education. The state Supreme Court has yet to decide an appeal of that case, brought, two decades ago, by 37 school districts that argue the state does not spend enough on public education.

Child Development money now goes only to 4K programs in the school districts that sued the state. But Sheheen and Smith want all low-income children statewide, regardless of their school district, to have access to full-day 4-year-old kindergarten.

The state Board of Economic Advisors has not released its estimates on how much statewide 4K kindergarten would cost. But Sheheen estimates the state’s cost could be in the ballpark of $100 million a year.

It is not an insurmountable figure, he said.

“We had almost a billion-dollar surplus last year,” he said. “(The cost is) well within what the state could afford if we had the leadership and intestinal fortitude to go ahead and do it.”

And GOP support. Without support from legislative Republicans, who control the House and Senate, efforts to expand 4K will fail. But some Republicans support the idea.

House Education Committee chairman Phil Owens, R-Pickens, agrees the state needs to expand its 4-year-old kindergarten program and, possibly, include 3-year-old kindergarten, too.

“Statistics have shown – and the evidence is there – that early childhood intervention in education is extremely important in keeping that child on grade level,” Owens said.

Owens said wants the state to work in partnership with private kindergarten providers to expand 4K . Those providers could lose business if the state goes into competition with them to educate 4-year-olds.

Expanding 4K education statewide has been tried before.

In 2008, a bipartisan bill passed the Senate but died in the House because the recession hit, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, one of its cosponsors.

Hayes also is cosponsoring Sheheen’s bill, which he says has a strong chance of passing if the price tag is not too high. Phasing in 4K’s implementation as Sheheen and Smith suggest could hold down the costs, he said.

Expanding 4K also could keep the Supreme Court, which could rule at any time on the school-funding lawsuit, out of the issue, demonstrating that the state is willing to support improved early childhood development, Hayes said.

Benefits wash out?

Not everyone agrees on the benefits of 4K education.

Asked her position, Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, was unavailable for comment.

“We need to fix K-12 education in South Carolina,” said Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey. “The governor started an important and long-overdue, bipartisan conversation about K-12 during her State of the State address. She has continued that conversation with lawmakers and stakeholders, and that’s where her focus will remain.”

Education Department spokesman Ragley says there is no proof that expanding 4K would better prepare students for school.

He points to a study that shows third graders who attended Head Start, a federal early-childhood program, benefited initially, but that benefit had diminished by the third grade. The effects of early-childhood intervention are “washed out” by the time a child enters third grade, Ragley said.

The question, Ragley said, “comes down to which perspective you take: whether students should be ready for schools, or whether schools should be ready for students whenever they enter.”

Ragley also says the state’s 4K programs have not been evaluated well enough to say whether they benefit students.

Educating parents

A 2010 study, conducted by the University of South Carolina, reported children in the state’s Child Development program made “modest and meaningful progress in language, achievement, and social and behavior development.” Those positive effects continued as the children moved from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten, the report says.

In Richland 2, early childhood educators track students’ progress.

The district runs two pre-K programs – a publicly funded program for at-risk youth and another tuition-based program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Each program operates a center, like the one on Clemson Road, but also has classrooms in elementary schools.

The district sees benefits, which is why it continues to spend money on 4K, said Marsha Moseley, the district’s early-childhood coordinator. But getting parents involved is essential, she added.

In the 4K program for at-risk youth, parents meet monthly with educators who teach them how to become teachers themselves, Moseley said.

“We know that no matter what we do in the classroom, if it doesn’t transfer into the home, then our efforts, as good as they may be, may not be as long lasting.”

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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