If lifelong educational achievement depends on a firm foundation, the importance of First Steps to Readiness is hard to overstate.
First Steps is South Carolina’s signature initiative to ensure school readiness for at-risk children. But a lack of accountability, poor record-keeping, absent leadership and unsubstantiated claims have made it impossible to assess First Steps’ worth.
Educators contend the program, intended to prepare preschoolers to be successful in first grade, is working well. They say it has been key to a dramatic drop in first grade retention — 48 percent between 2001 and 2010.
But the problems cited in a report by the Legislative Audit Council, following its year-and-a-half investigation, suggest that more is required to make the case for First Steps.
For example, there are no measures for the risk factors of children that First Steps focuses on — things like teen mothers, poverty and low birth weight.
It isn’t even clear how many students who are served by First Steps programs are really at risk.
That lack of accountability is partly due to the state having eliminated a standardized test to measure for readiness. The LAC recommends that readiness testing be reinstated.
The problems for First Steps start at the top. The program is all but rudderless where its board is concerned.
Neither the governor, who chairs the board, nor the superintendent of education, who is a voting member, has attended a board meeting in four years.
And the rules don’t allow either to designate someone to serve in their places.
Further, between January 2009 and December 2012, the average attendance at board meetings was 45 percent. The highest was 65 percent, and the lowest was 25 percent. Of the 25 meetings, a quorum attended only seven.
Board policy says a trustee may not serve with more than three consecutive unexcused absences. That rule wasn’t enforced.
As a result of absenteeism, business has gone unattended. For example, the board has not done a formal performance evaluation of the director, Susan DeVenny, who earns $121,540 — more than anyone in the state Department of Education. Other staff performance evaluations have been as much as 23 months late.
Moreover, the director was out on annual leave for at least 17 days and on sick leave for six days during fiscal years 2011 and 2012 — none of which was reported to the state. If the error had not been discovered in the audit, it would have cost the state $8,000 in accrued compensation when the director leaves or retires.
First Steps, which received $17.8 million from the state in 2011-2012 and more from federal and private sources, encourages and supports local programs throughout the state that share its goals. But because of office errors, 32 of those 46 partnerships received more money than they were supposed to. Fourteen received less than they were due.
There is no doubt that giving books to children, showing parents how to help their children be ready for school, and providing health care assists children to be more successful in first grade.
But First Steps has some steps of its own to take to pin down its successes.
The public deserves accountability for the way tax dollars are spent. And that means First Steps should be required to produce the data that prove its success.
First Steps Board vice-chair Lewis Smoak of Greenville said that, of the LAC report’s 42 recommendations, the program has begun work on or completed 20. It’s a start.
But the fixes won’t all be easy. Some will require a degree of administrative attention that has been lacking. Some will require adjustments to the law.
And some will require First Steps board members — including the governor and the superintendent of education — simply to show up.