Ample evidence suggests that early childhood education not only helps at-risk children keep pace with their peers but also offers benefits that can last a lifetime. Thanks to a bipartisan effort in the Legislature last year, about 3,200 more 4-year-olds in South Carolina are attending kindergarten for the first time for free this school year because of a $26 million expansion of the state’s full-day 4K program for children living in poverty.
In all, about 8,400 4-year-olds now attend kindergarten through the state’s expanded 4K program. That’s up from about 5,200 last year.
The 4K program was launched in 2006 in response to a 2005 Circuit Court ruling that said the state should spend more on early childhood education. The program initially was limited to the 37 school districts that had sued the state, saying it did not spend enough on public education.
Last year, however, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, sponsored a push to expand the program to 17 other high-poverty districts where 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or Medicaid. This year, Sheheen, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, has introduced a Senate bill to make that expansion permanent, then expand it to more high-poverty districts and eventually provide optional full-day 4K to all 4-year-olds in the state.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who is seeking re-election, supported last year’s expansion. However, she said Wednesday that she favors keeping the program at current levels rather than opening it up to all 4-year-olds.
Haley will launch a package of educational reforms this week. Addressing educational inequality, especially in poor rural districts, will be a top priority. But her emphasis will be on K-12 rather than preschool education.
We agree that the emphasis for now should be on extending 4K to the poor children who are likely to need it the most. We hope eventually, though, that all 4-year-olds in need of affordable 4K will have access to it.
Research indicates that investing in early childhood education pays significant dividends as children progress through their school years. For example, a study by S.C. First Steps, one of the two groups that oversees the 4K program in private and public preschools, found that early intervention helped significantly reduce the number of children who repeated first grade.
In 2011-12, about 2,100 first-graders – or 3.8 percent – repeated first grade. A decade earlier, nearly one in 12 first-graders – 4,202, or 7.8 percent – were held back.
The number still is far too high. Nonetheless, the 4K expansion apparently is paying off in a number of ways. For one, it costs about $11,000 for a child to repeat a grade in South Carolina. That means the drop in the number of first-graders being retained amounts to about $23 million in savings.
Other studies indicate that early childhood education not only helps young children enter school ready to learn but also ultimately has an impact on poverty, economic inequality and crime rates. In short, money for 4K is money well spent.