COLUMBIA, SC — About 600 4-year-olds in Lexington and Richland counties and about 3,000 statewide are attending kindergarten for the first time for free this school year as a result of a $26 million expansion of the states full-day 4K program for children living in poverty.
That financial help is welcome news to families who typically (because of) the price factor ... wouldnt be able to attend school here, said Jennifer McConnell, director of Brookland Academy in West Columbia, where 13 of the centers 90 students are 4-year-olds who attend at no cost to their parents through the program.
During the 2012-13 school year, the state paid for 600 at-risk 4-year-olds to attend private preschool and 4,601 to attend public schools through a taxpayer-funded, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program. However, participation was limited to children living in 37 rural school districts that had sued the state, charging it inadequately funds public schools.
For this school year, lawmakers added $26 million to the state budget that took effect July 1, bringing the states cost for 4K programs to almost $49 million. That expansion opened the program to children in 17 more school districts where 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or Medicaid, two indicators of poverty.
About 8,400 children now are in the 4K program, based on enrollment estimates by S.C. First Steps for School Readiness and the S.C. Department of Education, which oversee the program in private and public preschools. That number is up about 60 percent from approximately 5,200 students last school year.
The expansion was significant in Richland and Lexington counties, where nine public and 13 private preschools enrolled children through the program this school year for the first time. And interest is expected to grow.
Already, weve received calls from providers asking for next (school) years applications, said Dan Wuori, chief program officer for First Steps.
State lawmakers created the 4K program in 2006 in response to a still-ongoing lawsuit brought by 37 rural school districts who charged the state did not spend enough on education.
The 4K program initially was limited to the suing school districts. But last year , state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who is running for governor, successfully pushed to expand the program. However, that expansion, adopted as part of the states annual budget, will expire at the end of June unless lawmakers extend the program.
Sheheen recently introduced a Senate bill that would make the program permanent. Sheheens proposal also would expand the program first, to children in other high-poverty districts and, later, to all children in all districts, regardless of poverty levels.
We can do good if we try, Sheheen told The State earlier this month. Its so rare in South Carolina state government where we really have a positive impact in the lives of our citizens. Every one of these kids, who has 4-year-old kindergarten available to them now, will contribute to a more educated state, and a more productive state and a better economy.
Sheheens proposal to extend and expand the 4K program and other education reform proposals is likely to be a major issue in the 2014 governors race.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking re-election, supported the 4-year-old expansion.
Haley also has been meeting with lawmakers, teachers, school administrators, college and university officials, and business leaders to get their ideas on other education reforms. She plans to introduce a package of education reforms early next year.
The states commitment to early childhood education is paying dividends, Wuori said, pointing to a recent study by First Steps, an organization charged with preparing children for school.
In 2011-12, about 2,100 first-graders or 3.8 percent repeated first grade. A decade earlier, nearly one in 12 first-graders 4,202, or 7.8 percent were held back.
It costs about $11,000 to have a child repeat a grade in South Carolina. That means the drop in the number of first-graders being retained amounts to about $23 million in savings.
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