April 10, 2014

SC Senate OKs statewide reading focus, 4K expansion

A bill aimed at giving all 4-year-olds access to free kindergarten and getting third graders reading on grade level passed the S.C. Senate Wednesday and, with one more OK, will head to the state House.

A bill aimed at giving all at-risk 4-year-olds access to free kindergarten and getting third-graders reading on grade level passed the S.C. Senate Wednesday.

The GOP-backed reading program, called the Read to Succeed Act, would hold back struggling third-grade readers for a year of literacy instruction. It also would require training in reading instruction for teachers and reading summer camps.

Democrats had said that proposal is unfair to students unless they first had a chance to be successful learners. Expanding the state’s existing 4-year-old kindergarten program to all at-risk students who live in poverty or perform poorly academically would do that, supporters say.

Both efforts, which gained momentum starting last year, could have died on the Senate floor if not for a bipartisan deal to combine them.

Now, the combined kindergarten-reading bill needs one more, largely perfunctory, approval in the Senate before moving to the S.C. House. There, lawmakers already have approved $30 million for reading coaches for elementary schools and $4.5 million for summer reading camps.

However, paying to expand free 4K programs may prove more of a challenge.

Last year, the General Assembly approved $26 million to expand the 4K program to at-risk children in the poorest school districts. But the Senate legislation does not include automatic spending to pay for the reading or kindergarten programs, and the House’s budget plan, already passed, does not include any new spending for the state’s 4K program.

But the Senate, now considering its version of the state budget for next fiscal year, has a chance to propose increased money for the 4K program.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, negotiated the deal that led to Wednesday’s 36-6 vote.

If the bill becomes law, third graders who score the lowest on reading assessments would stay in the third grade for another year of reading-intensive instruction starting in the 2017-18 school year. Struggling readers also would have access to summer reading camps.

School districts would work with a newly created state reading office to develop reading plans. School teachers and administrators also would be required to get additional training in teaching reading.

The bill also would expand the state’s free full-day kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, as money is made available, to serve a greater number of at-risk children. The bill also would make that 4K program part of permanent state law. Now, lawmakers must approve it annually.

Senate leaders lauded the bipartisan deal Wednesday.

“We each write our own legacy,” said Democrat Setzler. “I don’t think we can give any greater legacy than giving a child an opportunity.”

Republican Peeler pushed the Read to Succeed program, saying he was looking for a way to improve the state’s high school graduation rate.

In comments after the Senate vote, Peeler said his passion for the bill – evident in his shaky voice – is “personal,” declining to elaborate.

“To the thousands of people in South Carolina that don’t read too good – this is for you.”

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