South Carolina Advances Legislation To Expand Preschool Access For Low-Income Children

Legislation that would expand access for low-income children to full-day pre-kindergarten classes advanced in the South Carolina state senate last week, as a subcommittee voted to send the legislation to the full Senate Education Committee.

The bill would expand a pilot pre-kindergarten program started in 2006, an effort Democrats and education advocates have pushed since it began. Republicans have opposed the expansion in the past but are now offering support, and Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman (R) could include it in his budget plan, NECN reports:

The powerful senator acknowledged he’s considering adding the first year of a phase-in to the 2013-14 Senate budget plan his committee is crafting this week. Sen. Wes Hayes, chairman of the education subcommittee, was more direct. Before the vote, he stressed that Leatherman is “extremely supportive” of the idea and is looking to put $20 million in the budget.

That would nearly double what the state currently spends on a program that benefits about 4,700 children in three dozen districts that sued the state 20 years ago over education funding. That limited program was the Legislature’s response to a December 2005 court order that the state do more in the early years to help overcome the effects of poverty.

The state’s superintendent of education still opposes the legislation because he contends that the benefits of early childhood education don’t last. But studies have shown that at-risk children who receive early childhood intervention are less likely to drop out of school, commit violent crimes, or become teen parents — and more likely to attend college — than at-risk children who don’t. And efforts to make preschool universal in states like Georgia and Oklahoma have produced significant economic benefits by reducing societal and government costs and boosting educational attainment.

While other states, like South Carolina, have pushed to expand existing programs or create new ones, President Obama took preschool to the national stage in April when he proposed $75 billion in funds to expand access to preschool nationwide. The United States currently enrolls fewer children and spends less on preschool than other developed countries, but Obama’s plan would allow the federal government to partner with states to expand access to low-income children in an effort to close those gaps. Though Republicans have led the push for expanded preschool in some states and finally joined that push in others, Republicans in Congress have thus far voiced little support for Obama’s proposal.