To the Contrary

One agency should oversee early childhood education

In 1999, when my friend, then-S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, appointed me to the Board of S.C. First Steps to School Readiness as his nominee from the business community, I promised him I would do all I could to assure that the agency operated efficiently and soundly. Having just completed my final term, I am more convinced than ever that providing age-appropriate developmental services to our youngest children is the single most effective thing we can do to raise education and income levels in our state. While First Steps, through 46 county partnerships, has done much to increase awareness of the value of early childhood programs, it can do better.

Years ago, as our state moved to provide voluntary universal kindergarten for 5-year-olds, a significant financial burden was placed on hundreds of private child-care providers. As public schools expanded 5-K, many families with children in quality private child-care moved 5-year-olds to public schools because public 5-K was "free." Private providers were left with infants and toddlers for whom services are much more costly because more teacher/workers per child are required for these children. Many child-care providers were forced to close.

During the spring of 2006, our state Legislature was addressing Judge Thomas Cooper's ruling that the state is not doing enough to provide developmental services to preschool children in eight trial and 28 plaintiff school districts. Because research has shown that the brain is significantly developed before age 4, the First Steps board adopted a policy urging the Legislature to expand comprehensive services to all at-risk children from birth through age 4 in these districts.

After learning that the Legislature was opting to offer a pilot program expanding only 4-K services, our state board adopted a recommendation that funds for this 4-K expansion be made available to both private providers (private for-profit, private nonprofit, faith-based and other non-school district settings) and public providers (school districts). This recommendation in no way constituted support for public funding of private K-12, only private 4-K. It was based on the need to preserve child-care capacity for infants and toddlers and to avoid a large exodus of 4-year-olds from private centers.

No capacity to expand

It was endorsed by the state superintendent of Education, also a member of the First Steps board, who acknowledged that school districts did not then have the capacity to expand 4-K to all those at risk. The First Steps board did not discuss or take a position regarding which agency should administer the pilot 4-K program.

The next thing we knew, our executive director was waging a lobbying effort to have First Steps named as administrator and fiscal agent for funds the Legislature might earmark for private pro-viders. Although it created resentment among some public school administrators and was beyond what we, as a board, intended, the Legislature passed a bill establishing a two-year pilot 4-K program and naming the Department of Education administrator of those programs offered by school districts, and First Steps as the administrator of those programs offered by private providers.

I have watched the First Steps staff struggle to implement and administer this pilot program. First Steps did not have, does not have and should not develop the capacity to administer this program. There should be one administrator for both private and public 4-K -- the Department of Education, which already has the capacity to effectively administer an expanded comprehensive 4-K program.

As a result of not having the capacity in place, First Steps was able to utilize less than 30 percent of the funds the Legislature allocated to programs offered by private providers during the first year of implementation, reaching approximately 300 children of an estimated potential of 2,000. It probably will do little better during the coming school year.

Wasted money

The administrative costs incurred by First Steps to implement this program are large, duplicative and a waste of taxpayer dollars. As we approach the second year of implementation, First Steps is gearing up to duplicate more administrative positions already in place in the Department of Education. Money to fund these positions would be better spent in providing direct services to children.

There is absolutely no logic in having two different agencies administer the same programs. Rather than fostering an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration among private and public providers, the current duplication is fostering competition and causing both groups to fall short in their pursuit of common goals. Private and public providers need to be at the same table and regularly communicating with one another in order to more effectively work together and to understand each others' capabilities and concerns.

The Legislature certainly should continue allocating significant amounts of dollars to private providers for expansion of 4-K services. As well, increased public funding of early childhood education for children from birth to age 3 is needed. First Steps at the state and county level should support efforts to expand 4-K but shift its primary focus to children from birth through 3. Having a single administrator of 4-K would foster improved collaboration between private and public providers, cost significantly less than with dual administrators, and achieve far better results than are being obtained today.

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