Opinion Extra

Carolan, Waters: 4K is a valuable investment for South Carolina


While the headline “Poor children lag desipte 4K” paints a depressing picture for South Carolina’s children, The State’s recent report on 4-year-old kindergarten shows the program has succeeded in several goals.

Low-income children who attended the state’s full-day 4K program as preschoolers consistently outperformed children in low-income districts who did not attend 4K on the state’s third- through sixth-grade exams for math and English language arts. The program also has expanded impressively to serve more at-risk 4-year-olds in recent years, which can have meaningful impacts on K-12 education in these districts: The more 5-year-olds who show up to kindergarten ready to learn, the better for everyone, as teachers can focus on building on that knowledge rather than trying to fill gaps in knowledge.

This report does raise several areas where 4K must improve in order to ensure all children start school on the right foot.

Program effects varied significantly from district to district by the time children took their third-grade math tests. While local control is essential to education, the state must ensure that 4K teachers in all districts have the resources they need to get the job done right, including access to top-notch professional development. The need for further emphasis on math is particularly important, as the Education Oversight Committee’s report stressed that math achievement gaps persist even for those children who participate in the program. Children are naturally curious, and focusing on science, technology, engineering and math skills puts them on track to embrace these fields throughout their education. These skills have never been more in demand by employers, and starting kids on the right track early is a smart move not only for our schools, but also for businesses throughout the state.

Much like a preschool classroom during circle time, the 4K program brings many different people to the table: public pre-K, private child-care centers, Head Start programs, parents, teachers, and lawmakers. We second the report’s call for “encouraging more seamless, coordinated, integrated provision of pre-kindergarten among all pre-kindergarten settings.” The opportunity to shape a child’s future does not begin at age 4. Investing in a continuum of care, including high-quality home visiting programs for expectant mothers and infants, builds the foundation for success. First Steps and Children’s Trust have been powerful partners in helping ensure the state’s families and children have the resources they need. It is only through working collaboratively to improve quality in all settings that we ensure South Carolina’s youngest learners start school ready to succeed.

Investing in the first five years of life is critical to ensuring the success of all children in school, their lifelong health and contribution to a prosperous society. We must not back down from our commitment to investing in these early years. While the 4K program has a ways to go to ensuring high-quality experiences for every child who is participating, we wholeheartedly endorse the approach: South Carolina is leading the way in building a high-quality, mixed public-private delivery mechanism that ensures high-quality early experiences for our most vulnerable children. This is absolutely the most important investment we can make to ensure that all children in South Carolina have the skills and resources they need to join a competitive workforce in a global, knowledge-based economy.

Ms. Carolan is associate director for policy research and Mr. Waters is vice president of the S.C. Institute for Child Success. Contact them at mcarolan@instituteforchildsuccess.org or jwaters@instituteforchildsuccess.org.