Expanding 4-year-old kindergarten for at-risk S.C. children will be a priority as the Senate takes up the state budget, Senate leaders said Wednesday.
Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said he is looking for a way to put more money into an existing state-funded 4-year-old kindergarten program for children from low-income families.
The Senate could add $20 million to that program for next year’s budget, which begins July 1, said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, during a Senate education panel meeting.
The discussion came up as the panel advanced a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, aimed at giving all at-risk 4 year olds statewide the chance to attend kindergarten. Demand for 4K programs is outpacing their availability, Sheheen said at the hearing, adding, “It is time for us to do something dramatic.”
Sheheen’s bill would make permanent the state’s existing at-risk 4K program, which the General Assembly now considers each year as it draws up a new state budget, and require lawmakers to expand the program until all eligible 4-year-olds have access, starting with the districts with the highest poverty levels.
If the bill becomes law, about 41,600 S.C. 4-year-olds would be eligible.
Expanding the program statewide would cost $87 million or more, depending on how many children sign up, according to a state budget office estimate.
While Sheheen’s bill moves through the General Assembly, lawmakers could go ahead and add money to next year’s state budget to expand K4 programs, Hayes said. That program currently serves about 5,200 at-risk 4-year-olds at a cost of about $20 million to the state. School districts pitch in an additional $10 million in local money.
The 4K program currently now is available in 36 school districts that sued the state two decades ago, arguing the state does not spend enough on public education. With more money, the state could expand the program to other high-poverty districts.
The state started the program in response to a 2005 court ruling saying the state should spend more on early-childhood education. The state Supreme Court has yet to decide an appeal of that case.
In total, about 30,000 S.C. 4-year-olds – high, medium and low income – attend publicly supported 4K programs, including those offered through public schools and the federal Head Start program, according to S.C. First Steps, a nonprofit focused on early childhood development.