By SEANNA ADCOX
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After years without headway, an effort to expand full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to more poor children in South Carolina advanced Wednesday in the Senate.
A 6-1 vote sent the measure to the full education committee. But it may be the finance committee that propels the bill, which calls for extending statewide a program that's remained a pilot since its 2006 creation.
Sen. Vincent Sheheen, the main sponsor, said his bill represents an opportunity to break a generational cycle of poverty.
"We have neglected too many generations of school children in this state for too long. This is the first step to give children and parents the tools needed for a successful academic future," said Sheheen, D-Camden, who suggests a three-year phase-in.
Advocates say the program exposes 4-year-olds living in poverty to language and other skills not learned in homes that may lack a single book, so they don't start school far behind their peers.
Democrats and education advocates have fought for an expansion for years, but Republican leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea as unaffordable, particularly amid the Great Recession. The idea has gone nowhere since 2008. But with the budget crisis over, a renewed effort is gaining support, notably from Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman.
The powerful senator acknowledged he's considering adding the first year of a phase-in to the 2013-14 Senate budget plan his committee is crafting this week. Sen. Wes Hayes, chairman of the education subcommittee, was more direct. Before the vote, he stressed that Leatherman is "extremely supportive" of the idea and is looking to put $20 million in the budget.
That would nearly double what the state currently spends on a program that benefits about 4,700 children in three dozen districts that sued the state 20 years ago over education funding. That limited program was the Legislature's response to a December 2005 court order that the state do more in the early years to help overcome the effects of poverty.
Legislators and school districts are still awaiting the state Supreme Court's decision on their appeal — another reason the expansion effort has been stymied.
"We've got to get to the point where we start doing something and saving some children," said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville.
He attributed his success partly to the 4-year-old program he attended, noting his parents only finished seventh and 10th grades, but he could read when he started school: "I remain convinced that this is one of the most critical things we can do as it relates to educating children."
Malloy wants the expansion to move in conjunction with a Republican-led bill dubbed "Read to Succeed," which calls for early intervention for students who can't read and requires those who still can't comprehend words on the page by the end of third grade be held back for a year of reading-intensive lessons. Malloy insists 4-year-old kindergarten is an imperative part of that early intervention and made clear he'd block "Read to Succeed" if pre-K fails.
Both bills are backed by the independent Education Oversight Committee.
One key educator who opposes expanding 4-year-old kindergarten is Republican state Superintendent Mick Zais, whose stance hasn't changed since his successful 2010 campaign. He contends the benefits don't last — citing reports on the federally funded Head Start program — and that the money would be better spent on rewarding teachers deemed to be effective in the classroom.
"Four-year-old intervention doesn't change that child's home environment. It doesn't change that he might have an ineffective teacher in first or second grade," said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley. "You're talking about a one-year intervention that's supposed to change the trajectory of a child's life."
Disagreeing with Zais, Sheheen and other advocates of the bill point to studies that show the benefits of 4K.
EOC director Melanie Barton said the key is a high-quality preschool education. Hayes noted the pay-for-performance system for teachers Zais wants may be years away.
A statewide expansion of the full-day program for 4-year-olds who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals is estimated to cost about $90 million. A deal in the works would base the expansion on districts' poverty rates.
South Carolina began funding half-day 4-year-old kindergarten for at-risk children in 1984. Many districts have supplemented that with local property taxes to provide more slots and increase the hours. An expansion of the state program could free up local taxes.Tags: