SC Gov. Haley says early childhood First Steps program needs a closer review

06/12/2014 9:22 PM

06/13/2014 11:52 PM

Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a bill Thursday that supporters say would have improved a nonprofit that distributes public money to private pre-kindergarten programs.

Haley agreed to reauthorize S.C. First Steps for a year but asked lawmakers to review the nonprofit before agreeing to OK it for longer.

“You don’t keep things going just because you always have,” Haley said after issuing her vetoes. “We are not seeing First Steps as being as effective as they should be.”

First Steps – which will cost taxpayers nearly $42 million this year, including $34 million from the state – distributes public money and private grants to early childhood programs, targeting children up to age 5. First Steps also oversees private programs that are part of the state’s free, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten program, which includes private and public schools.

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In her veto, Haley pointed to a June 2013 Legislative Audit Council review that found 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.

The bill Haley vetoed would have increased external audits and program evaluations of First Steps, and created a legal definition for what makes a child ready for school. Other recommendations from the audit that do not require legislative action already are underway at the agency, First Steps director Susan DeVenny said.

Democrats seized on the veto to criticize Haley, who has made increased education spending central to her re-election campaign.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Haley’s Democratic rival in the governor’s race, urged lawmakers to override the veto, saying it blocked a “vital part” of expanding 4K programs across the state.

But Haley stressed she did not kill First Steps, instead opting to OK it for a year, instead of two. On Wednesday, Haley also signed into law a bill that among other things, expands the free, full-day 4K program to more at-risk students statewide, as more state money becomes available.

In her veto message on the First Steps bill, Haley said the improvements proposed in the legislation were not “so crucial or time-sensitive that they cannot wait” until after more review. 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.

DeVenny said she was disappointed in Haley’s veto after the bill passed the House unanimously and only had three opponents in the Senate.

“We are a one-stop shop for assisting at-risk children wherever they are,” DeVenny said. “First Steps has it all. These public-private partnerships are working.”

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