SC Senate budget to center on education spending

04/25/2014 8:05 PM

04/25/2014 8:06 PM

The fate of an expanded 4-year-old kindergarten program in South Carolina will be on the table when state senators return to work Tuesday.

The state Senate Finance Committee will be mulling whether to spend more taxpayer money to expand the state’s 4-year-old kindergarten program, as Democrats favor, or to spend more instead on other education initiatives, including a Republican-sponsored proposal to spend more to ensure third graders can read, called “Read to Succeed.”

“This is a priority for us in the budget,” Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said of the 4K expansion.

Often, Democrats have little say in what the GOP-majority Legislature decides to do. But, in the state Senate, minority party Democrats sometimes work with mainstream Republicans to pass legislation, as happened earlier this month when the Senate — with GOP and Democratic support — passed a combined 4K-Read to Succeed Act bill. However, that proposal included no money.

Now the question is whether there will be enough money for both programs.

Last year, state spending on 4K programs was increased by $26 million. Setzler said Democrats want to increase that spending by another $26 million to double the 8,000 children now served by the program.

Where that money will come from is up in the air.

The GOP-controlled House did not recommend any additional spending on 4K.

If the Senate decides it wants to spend more on 4K, it could propose cuts to spending elsewhere and then try to sell those cuts to the House. Or additional state revenue that could be forecast by the Board of Economic Advisors, allowing the Senate to propose increased 4K spending, Setzler said.

But if the Economic Advisors do not forecast more money, it will be difficult to expand 4K and fully pay for Read to Succeed, said Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee that makes recommendations on K-12 education funding.

A compromise between both initiatives — a partial expansion of 4K and phasing in reading coaches — is possible, said Hayes. But it is too early to see if that is an option, he added.

Senators also could delete House-passed provisos — one-year spending deals that critics say are legislative pork — and propose redirecting money to 4K, Setzler said.

The House-passed budget includes the Read to Succeed Act, including $30 million for reading coaches and $4.5 million for summer-reading camps, part of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposal for $175 million in new education spending.

But the GOP-controlled House did not propose any additional money on 4K, a key agenda item for Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who is running against Republican Haley in November.

Senate leaders of both parties, who collaborated on passing a combined Read to Succeed-4K bill, hope that paying for one education initiative does not hurt the other.

“I certainly don’t want to see both issues competing for each other,” said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who sponsored Read to Succeed. “They should be on the same team.”

Setzler agreed.

“We try not to pit those against each other,” he said.

But Setzler made it clear 4K is a priority for Senate Democrats.

“Our goal is to expand 4-year-old kindergarten for at-risk students as much as possible for the next fiscal year,” he said.

But if it comes down to choosing between more money for 4K or paying to ensure third-graders can read, Peeler, R-Cherokee, leans toward his Read to Succeed proposal.

Last year, the General Assembly agreed to spend more on 4K, Peeler said.

“This year, it’s time for Read to Succeed to catch up with the funding.”

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