COLUMBIA — 60,000
On Friday, 4-year-olds at Clemson Road Child Development Center played with fake snow, built castles and romped on the playground, complete with a miniature race track and performance theater.
The children take monthly field trips and listen to visitors give presentations, said lead teacher Debbie Brady.
“We’re trying to get them out doing things,” Brady said, adding that experiencing new things – a key component of education – helps the 4-year-olds learn.
Of South Carolina’s 60,000 4-year-olds, 50.7 percent attend some form of publicly funded 4-year-old kindergarten. But if a group of mostly Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate have their way, more 4-years-olds could go to kindergarten.
The cost? Roughly $100 million more for South Carolina taxpayers, one lawmaker estimates.
That amount already is spent in the state each year on 4K education. In 2010-2011, an estimated $94.2 million in public money, including $35.6 million from the state, was spent on 4-year-old kindergarten, according to S.C. First Steps, the state program that focuses on early-childhood education and oversees private 4K programs that receive state support. That excludes an estimated $41 million spent from the federal Head Start program.
Twin bills in the state Senate and House – sponsored by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland – would expand full-day kindergarten statewide to 4-year-olds from low-income families.
But not everyone agrees the state needs more 4-year-old kindergarten programs.
State Education Superintendent Mick Zais, unconvinced that the programs produce any lasting benefits, does not support expansion, said spokesman Jay Ragley.
Sheheen and Smith want to make permanent and expand the state’s Child Development Education Pilot Program.
That program, launched in 2006, was the state’s response to a 2005 Circuit Court ruling that said the state should spend more on early childhood education. The state Supreme Court has yet to decide an appeal of that case, brought, two decades ago, by 37 school districts that argue the state does not spend enough on public education.
Child Development money now goes only to 4K programs in the school districts that sued the state. But Sheheen and Smith want low-income children statewide, regardless of their school district, to have access to full-day 4-year-old kindergarten.
The state Board of Economic Advisors has not released its estimates on how much statewide 4K would cost. But Sheheen estimates that the state’s cost could be in the ballpark of $100 million a year. It is not an insurmountable figure, he said.
“We had almost a billion-dollar surplus last year,” he said. “(The cost is) well within what the state could afford if we had the leadership and intestinal fortitude to go ahead and do it.”
And GOP support. Without support from legislative Republicans, who control the House and Senate, efforts to expand 4K will fail. Some Republicans support the idea.
House Education Committee chairman Phil Owens, R-Pickens, agrees the state needs to expand its 4-year-old kindergarten program and, possibly, include 3-year-old kindergarten, too.
“Statistics have shown – and the evidence is there – that early childhood intervention in education is extremely important in keeping that child on grade level,” Owens said.
Owens said he wants the state to work in partnership with private kindergarten providers to expand 4K. Those providers could lose business if the state goes into competition with them to educate 4-year-olds.
Expanding 4K education statewide has been tried before. In 2008, a bipartisan bill passed the Senate but died in the House because the recession hit, said S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, a cosponsor.
Hayes also is cosponsoring Sheheen’s bill, which he says has a strong chance of passing if the price tag is not too high. Phasing in 4K’s implementation, as Sheheen and Smith suggest, could hold down the costs, he said.
Expanding 4K also could keep the Supreme Court, which could rule at any time on the school-funding lawsuit, out of the issue, demonstrating that the state is willing to support improved early childhood development, Hayes said.
Not everyone agrees on the benefits of 4K education.
Gov. Nikki Haley was unavailable for comment.
“We need to fix K-12 education in South Carolina,” said Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey. “The governor started an important and long-overdue, bipartisan conversation about K-12 during her State of the State address. She has continued that conversation with lawmakers and stakeholders, and that’s where her focus will remain.”
Education Department spokesman Ragley says there is no proof that expanding 4K would better prepare students for school.
He points to a study that shows third-graders who attended Head Start benefited initially, but that benefit had diminished by the third grade. The effects of early childhood intervention are “washed out” by the time a child enters third grade, Ragley said.
A 2010 study, conducted by the University of South Carolina, reported that children in the state’s Child Development program made “modest and meaningful progress in language, achievement, and social and behavior development.” Those positive effects continued as the children moved to kindergarten, the report states.