Haley, in veto, says early childhood nonprofit needs a closer look

Posted by JAMIE SELF on June 12, 2014 

Four and five year old children listen to calming music and practice breathing techniques during a de-stressing exercise which is part of the Conscious Discipline curriculum used at Clemson Road Child Development Center.

— Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a bill that supporters say would improve a nonprofit that distributes public money to private pre-kindergarten providers.

Claiming the nonprofit has not proven its effectiveness, Haley agreed to reauthorize S.C. First Steps for one year -- the same way it was approved last year -- and asked lawmakers to take more time to review the organization before agreeing to OK it for longer.

"You don't keep things going just because you always have," Haley told media after issuing her vetoes Thursday. "You only do things when you see they're effective. We are not seeing First Steps as being as effective as they should be."

First Steps, which spent $41 million in 2011-12, distributes public money and grants to early childhood programs across the state. That includes distributing money to private 4K providers for the state's free, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program.

Haley pointed to a June 2013 Legislative Audit Council review of the nonprofit that found that First Steps used “questionable statistics” to show it helps children succeed in school, over- and underfunded various county partnerships and has poor participation by its governing board.

First Steps has taken some credit for drops in the number of first-graders who had to repeat a grade. But the audit criticized the nonprofit for not doing a comparison of students who have access to First Steps, other early childhood programs or none at all.

The bill Haley vetoed would have made some of the improvements the audit recommended state law and would have extended the nonprofit's authorization for two years.

Democrats seized on the veto to criticize Haley, who has made education reforms central to her re-election campaign, recommending in this year's budget increases in spending on technology, reading coaches and per-student spending.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley's Democratic rival in the governor's race, urged lawmakers to override the veto, saying that Haley had "displayed a miraculous, election-year conversion, claiming all of a sudden she supports public education. But today, she went behind the people’s backs to veto a vital part of the implementation of 4-year-old kindergarten across South Carolina."

Not passing the two-year re-authorization would, in the future, jeopardize a program that gives 2,000 children access to 4-year-old kindergarten, Sheheen said.

But Haley, to media on Thursday, stressed that she did not kill the First Steps program, but instead opted to OK it for one year, instead of two.

On Wednesday, Haley also signed into law a bill that, among other things, would allow the state to expand its free, full-day 4K program for at-risk students statewide, as money comes available.

In her veto message on the First Steps bill, Haley said the improvements in the legislation are not "so crucial or time-sensitive that they cannot wait to be introduced as part of a more thoughtful and deliberative re-authorization process."

Haley said she would set up a study committee to review the "cost, quality, governance, and effectiveness of all of our pre-kindergarten programs," not just First Steps, if lawmakers sustain her veto.

First Steps director Susan DeVenney was not immediately available for comment.

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