Like a nervous toddler, the General Assembly is poised to take another half-step toward expanding statewide early education for kindergartners.
The House and the Senate last week passed bills supporting an education reform package, “Read to Succeed,” that ties third-grade reading achievement to advancement to the next grade.
The House passed a clean version of the measure, focusing solely on a package pushed by the GOP leadership, according to House Education Committee chairman Rep. Phil Owens (R-Easley).
In the Senate, the politically popular Read to Succeed program, first authored by Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) and then pushed by Gov. Nikki Haley, became broader. It was combined into a bill that would make 4-year-old kindergarten available statewide to at-risk children. Currently, 54 of the state’s 81 school districts offer public 4K programs, which is up from 37 districts last year.
However, the 4K programs that were added last year in 17 school districts were funded for one year, not with recurring dollars. That meant the programs in those districts were to be up for debate every legislative session. The Senate bill would move the programs’ funding — plus funding for the remaining 27 districts — into the recurring column of the budget.
But there’s an interesting wrinkle. The Senate version would only provide the recurring dollars if those dollars were available, which means that 4K programs could disappear during a recession, such as the Great Recession that South Carolina is still clambering out of.
“And who’s to say when there’s enough money?” asked Owens.
Similarly, the House budget plan, now being reviewed in the Senate, does not include any funding for expanded 4K.
A Tough Run
Kindergarten for 4-year-olds has had a tough run in South Carolina.
In 2006, S.C. Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. ruled in Abbeville v. South Carolina that the state must mitigate the lack of equal education access in poor districts across the state by creating a 4K program.
The ruling, which has since been appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court, did not include a method for funding, or make clear the ruling’s scope or how it should be administered. As the state’s Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case initially filed in 1993, it has remained a political football.
Begun as a pilot program in some of the poorest counties least able to contribute to their own public education systems, 4K has grown by fits and starts.
The Senate version would combine the 4K expansion with Read to Succeed, which includes holding back struggling third-graders in yearlong reading academies. It also includes pushing for higher literacy scores through reading coaches, which is borrowed, in part, from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s education initiatives.
Currently, the state spends close to $44 million on the existing 4K program, through First Steps and the S.C. Child Development Education Program, according to state budget figures. And according to Sen. Wes Hayes (R-Rock Hill), who chairs the Education Subcommittee for Finance, expansion and full implementation across all districts would cost an additional $26 million — the same amount that state Sen. Vincent Sheheen (D-Camden) pushed the Legislature to add last year.
Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. John Courson (R-Columbia), chair of the Education Committee, describes himself as a “strong supporter” of linking 4K expansion with Read to Succeed.
Courson says the state can either “pay up on the front end or pay up on the back end” with bigger prison populations.
Courson’s argument has been one echoed for years in education and policy circles: kids who do poorly in school, especially in earlier grades, have a higher statistical chance of dropping out of school later on, and then being incarcerated.
State Rep. Mike Anthony (D-Union), who dropped out of the race for superintendent of education in late March, says the Senate is attempting to get support for 4K expansion in the House by linking it to the politically popular Read to Succeed program.
But he worries that his colleagues in the House may not be interested in reopening hard-fought deals from last year’s budget debate that cemented 4K for another year.
Owens said while there was a “flavor” in the House’s mouth for 4K expansion, he said his fellow representatives would prefer to handle the issue separately from Read to Succeed.
And some speculate that could doom the measure for this session, which is rapidly winding down.
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