Provide kindergarten for more 4-year-olds

May 15, 2013 

The plan in the S.C. Senate to extend full-day kindergarten to more of the state’s poor 4-year-olds is a step in the right direction. But we question why it is such a timid step.

Under a budget proposal advanced recently by the Senate Finance Committee, up to 8,200 additional 4-year-olds living in poverty would be able to attend state-funded, full-day kindergarten. Currently, that program is available only in the three dozen districts that sued the state concerning education funding 20 years ago.

The state has funded a half-day kindergarten for at-risk 4-year-olds since 1984, and some districts use local taxes to provide more slots and hours. The full-day program was created in 2006 after a court required the state to do more in the way of early childhood education to help children overcome the effects of poverty. The program has had the status of a pilot program ever since.

Democrats in the Legislature and education advocates have fought for years to expand the program. But Republican leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea as unaffordable, especially with the long-term economic downturn.

But now, with the budget crisis over, the battle has been renewed. And the plan got key support from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman.

The $22 million in the Senate plan would expand full-day kindergarten to districts statewide where more than 75 percent of students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals. But the first year of the multi-year phase-in would pick up only 17 districts with poverty rates up to 94.5 percent, which would leave 30 districts without the state-paid program.

While the expansion is welcome, the phase-in period is too long. Thousands of 4-year-olds in poverty will miss out on the benefits of early training.

Advocates note this training exposes 4-year-olds living in poverty to language and motor skills they are not likely to learn in their homes. Without that training, they start out behind their peers in kindergarten, and catching up can be difficult.

The need for such early childhood education should be obvious when lawmakers also are pushing a plan to require reading comprehension for all students by the third grade. Those who don’t master reading by then would be retained for a year and receive remedial help.

But providing full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds would significantly improve the odds of learning to read for children who come from homes without books or other educational stimuli and whose parents often have limited education themselves. This program perfectly fits the objectives of those who want to put greater emphasis on reading skills.

So, why wait? Rather than phasing the program in at a meager 8,400 students a year, why not expand the program to all underprivileged 4-year-olds in South Carolina?

It’s a solid investment in the future success of the state’s children.

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